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Roadside Art in the “Salad Bowl of the World:” How Agricultural Ideology Obscures Racial Capitalism and Inhibits Labor Reform

Tracy Perkins

            Drivers passing through the Salinas Valley from the San Francisco Bay Area to San Louis Obispo, Santa Barbara and points further south see a visually beautiful landscape. Strawberries, lettuce or artichokes stretch in neat rows to the base of steep hills blanketed with grasses that, depending on season, are colored alternately emerald green or golden. If the drivers notice workers in the fields, they will likely be small, distant figures who are quickly passed. In the place of actual workers, however, drivers may see one of the many attractive, larger-than-life cutout billboard murals of farmers and farmworkers.

            The farm fields that form the paintings’ backdrops make up the “salad bowl of the world,” so-named for the region’s export-intensive cool weather crops. The people depicted look happy with their work. They are painted in bright, sunny colors, and stand alone or in groups of two or three. Press coverage of the billboard art describes it as celebrating the region’s agricultural economy and its people (Pogash 2005a; Roth 2013a). But there is more to these images, and to California agricultural history, than first meets the eye. By alternately obscuring the existence of farmworkers or suggesting to the broader population that farmworkers are happy and well-treated, this art draws on long-standing agricultural ideologies to sustain racial capitalism and inhibit organizing, ultimately rendering agriculture’s reform more difficult.

Image 1: Billboard mural of “field man” Bob Lyman holding sliced head of lettuce. Vernon Morris provides scale. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney.

            Most of the cut-out billboard murals are painted by Salinas based artists John Cerney and Dong Sun Kim. Their murals often depict specific people, either current or past owners of or workers at the farms where the billboards are displayed. Cerney grew up in the Salinas Valley, where he worked in the post-harvest lettuce industry before getting a college degree in art. He has been painting giant cutout billboard people since the 1990s, and estimates that he has completed about 300 in his career, 30-40 of which are scattered around Monterey County, where the Salinas Valley is located (Chatfield 2018; Roth 2013b). Most of his work is commissioned by business owners, organizations and sometimes individuals, but as his career has matured he has also begun creating murals of his own design that he donates to towns around the country (Chatfield 2018).

            There is little information available in the public sphere about Kim. He is a self-taught artist who emigrated to the Salinas Valley from Seol, Korea. His youthful art depicted nature scenes, but as he got older, he developed an interest in “all things American.” (Indeed, much of Cerney and Kim’s work fits into the larger category of Americana). Kim fed this interest by reading US history books and watching cowboy movies (Robinson 2012). After his emigration, he collaborated with Cerney for a time on Cerney’s cut-out billboard murals, and now paints them and other murals on his own.

Image 2: Farmers and their artichokes. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural artist unknown.

            The Salinas Valley billboard people draw on familiar visual themes. For example, Image 2 shows two happy, friendly older white men. One has one arm casually around the other man, while his other hand, wedding ring visible, rests on the sign behind which they are placed. The other man holds three plump artichokes. Both wear old-fashioned glasses and coveralls with the “Ocean Mist” logo sewn onto the breasts. The billboard is painted in an Americana style reminiscent of the 1950s that evoke values of honesty, hard work, and thrift. The men’s weathered, smiling faces tap into agrarian tropes that suggest pride in work done well and according to the season’s changing patterns, and life in tight-knit rural communities in which people are both independent and yet also supportive of their neighbors when trouble strikes.

            As a single image, this mural could be simply a historical representation of the two men in question. But images never stand alone. This mural is in the company of other such agricultural imagery in the Salinas Valley, across the nation, and indeed in food products at grocery stores seemingly everywhere. The regularity with which such happy, white, old-timey farmers appear in agricultural imagery is what signals that something larger than individual artistry is at work. In this case, that “something larger” is ideology (Althusser 1971). More specifically, it is the ideology of Jeffersonian agrarianism combined with a more recent and overlapping form of white nostalgia.

            Ideologies are systems of ideas that either support or contest the way the world works. Dominant, or ruling ideologies combine with what Althusser calls repressive state apparatuses (i.e. the police, courts, prisons) to supp­­ort existing economic structures (capitalism) and the multiple forms of exploitation that uphold it (1971). The ideology of Jeffersonian agrarianism is foundational to the widespread tendency in the US to associate farmers with positive moral values. Thomas Jefferson saw small-scale farmers as particularly virtuous members of society. He promoted an economy based on small-scale farming combined with a weak federal government as the best foundation for a healthy democracy (Jefferson 1982). However, Jefferson’s vision was meant for free white farmers who labored on land that they owned. It excluded enslaved Africans and those who worked land owned by others. These exclusions from the category of virtuousness, and also from democracy, were necessary to support Jefferson’s own lifestyle. Jefferson owned 13,700 acres of land and at least 187 enslaved people at the time of the US Revolutionary War (Isenberg 2016). As a “founding father” of the nation, Jefferson’s agricultural ideology also had larger significance beyond his own household, directing attention away from the enslaved Africans and African Americans whose labor provided the foundation of much US agriculture and wealth (Baptist 2014; Carney 2002; Johnson 2013). Jeffersonian agrarianism thus upheld white supremacy.

            Jefferson’s agrarian vision persists (Buttel and Flinn 1975; Wald 2011). Now, it is most explicitly called on by white advocates of small-scale, family farming (Rampell 2017). But even though Jefferson attributed unique worth to the small-scale, pre-industrial, white, land-owning farmer who supplies most labor needs with family members, his vision has also been bent to the purposes of large scale, industrialized agribusinesses owned by whites who employ vast numbers of largely non-white, non-family labor.

            The idealization of white rural life embedded in Jeffersonian agrarianism strengthened after the Civil War ended legal slavery; as the US population changed from predominantly rural to predominantly urban in the 20th century; and again in the post-Civil Rights era. In each of these moments white nostalgia informed agrarian ideologies, and racial ideologies in general. White nostalgia functions, for whites, to cast in a warm glow of memory all-white spaces of the past, or racially mixed spaces in which whites were unquestioningly at the top of racial hierarchies. As Maly, Dalmage and Michaels write, “Nostalgia is a special type of memory, one that elevates pleasurable experiences… while scrubbing away stories that are unpleasant and even shameful” (2013:758–59), such as the horrific treatment of enslaved Africans, Black sharecroppers, and, more recently, Mexican farmworkers. As a result, the valorization of white farmers and erasure of workers of color has persisted across time in art, advertising, literature and politics (Alkon and McCullen 2011; Mitchell 1996; Sackman 2005; Wald 2011, 2016). When they are not simply erased, slaves and workers of color are typically portrayed as servile, simple, happy and/or exotic in ways that serve dominant economic interests (Adamkiewicz 2016; Besky 2014; Klein 2020).

            Many of these nostalgic visions now paint dreamy visions of white life in the 1950s which, not coincidentally, was the last decade before the bulk of the legal victories of the civil rights movement took place in the 1960s. Indeed, many of the Salinas Valley’s agricultural billboards depict aesthetics and agricultural technologies from the 1950s and earlier. These revered pasts took place before the disruption of (limited) racial integration in the 1960s, and, for the white lower middle classes, the economic erosion of the 1970s and beyond.

            Romanticized depictions of white rural life and agriculture hide the foundational role of Latinx farmworkers in California; 90 percent of today’s crop-workers in California are foreign born, with only 3% self-reporting as neither Hispanic nor Latino (U.S. Department of Labor n.d.). For example, Image 3 shows a presumably white man holding a head of lettuce while kneeling next to a packed lettuce box and his trusty dog. The box of lettuce is labeled with the Dole logo. This depiction intimately associates the man in question with the packing of the lettuce. However, the man depicted was the real-life owner of an agribusiness that farmed 10,700 acres of vegetable crops in California’s Salinas and San Joaquin Valleys as well as Arizona; one of his customers was the multinational corporation Dole Food Company (Caprara 2010; Preston 2016). It is highly unlikely that business owners who are responsible for farming on this scale spend much time packing produce. And even if they did, the vast majority of the labor would still be done by the Latinx who overwhelmingly make up the California agricultural labor force.

            Ocean Mist Farms, as depicted in Image 2, is also a large enterprise: they are the largest single grower of artichokes in the US, and grow in Arizona, Mexico, and four other regions of California in addition to the Salinas Valley (Anon n.d.-b). As such, they surely rely on Latinx farmworkers, despite the two kindly-looking white men featured on their billboard, and despite whatever their labor force may have looked like in the company’s early history.

Image 3: Owner of R.C. Farms, which sells to Dole, poses next to a packed box of lettuce. Photograph by Tracy Perkins. Mural artist unknown.

            Large scale, industrial farms are not the only agricultural enterprises that regularly depict white farmers while relying substantially on Latinx labor. Smaller farms, and especially organic ones, are often associated with white family farmers and/or fair labor conditions for workers. Image 4, painted by Dong Sun Kim, shows two white people surrounded by bountiful produce (Anon 2007). The billboard depicts a man and a woman standing closely together, the man pointing the way to the farm, and the woman leaning into the man. The image suggests a couple, and therefore a family farm. At their feet, the name of a farm is printed on the side of a box full of diverse produce. A quick internet search confirms that the people depicted are indeed a couple and the real-life owners of the farm in question. They are the third generation of their family to live on the property, they farm organically, and have farmed a relatively small 50-100 acres (Anon n.d.-a).

            Like this couple, whites in the Salinas Valley billboards are usually painted in ways suggestive of a status as farmers or farm owners by being positioned standing, with farm branding, and/or without hand-tools – see also Images 2 and 3. Latinx are typically depicted actively laboring on the land, and are less likely to appear with farm branding unless they are painted doing the work of packing branded boxes – see Images 5, 6 and 7. This representation of farmers/farm owners as white and farm workers as Latinx fairly accurately represents reality. Although there are important exceptions to this trend (Jett 2020; Mihesuah and Hoover 2019; Minkoff-Zern 2019; White 2018), across the US farm owners are largely and disproportionately white and farmworkers are largely and disproportionately Latinx. This racialized distinction between farmers and farmworkers depends in part on systems put in place across history to use people racialized as “other” than white as the foundation of agricultural labor. But it also depends on other systems that prevented people of color from owning land themselves, or that disappropriated or discriminated against those who did (Daniel 2007; Jett 2020; Matsumoto 1993; Minkoff-Zern and Sloat 2017; Ng 2002).

            Still, the billboard depicted in Image 4 constructs a white understanding of farming that belies the largely Latinx labor force of the state on not just conventional but also most organic farms. In addition to the makeup of the workforce, there are also the working conditions to consider. Although consumers often assume organic farms treat their workers better, organic farms cannot be assumed to have better labor practices than conventional farms; some do, but plenty of others do not (Getz, Brown, and Shreck 2008; Guthman 2014).

Image 4: Billboard mural of the owners of Swank Farms. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by Dong Sun Kim

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In obscuring the labor of Latinx workers, much of the Salinas Valley roadside agricultural art also does something more; it hides the larger economic context of racial capitalism. This concept draw’s attention to racism’s important role in American capitalism, which both produces and profits from racism as it has been enacted in wages, working conditions, immigration policy and labor protections, or the lack thereof (Baptist 2014; Du Bois 1999; Robinson 2005).

A vast array of different racialized groups provided the labor on which the agricultural economy depended across California history. Indigenous peoples formed the primary agricultural labor force from colonization until the mid 1850s; first those brought from what is now the Mexican state of Baja California, and after too many of them died en route, later from what is now California. Catholic missionaries were a leading edge of colonialism, and indigenous people were not allowed to leave the missions without permission. Those who fled were often tracked down and returned by soldiers, and sometimes whipped and jailed. They were neither paid for their work, nor could they typically own personal property, marry of their own accord, move about at night, or raise their own children. The status of Indigenous farmworkers changed little after the Mexican Independence, when modern day California changed hands from Spain to Mexico in 1821, nor after it changed hands again to the United States in 1846 (Street 2004). Disease and genocide decimated Indigenous populations, and survivors fled farm work.

Despite the small, mom-and-pop enterprise feel evoked about Salinas Valley farms in the region’s roadside agricultural art, the size of California agricultural enterprises was enormous almost from the start, set into place by Spanish and Mexican land policies that granted huge tracts of land to individuals, favored colonial elites (Daniel 1981). Farmworkers, not family members, provided the labor on the majority of California’s vast farms – California was one of the few places outside of the slave south in which farming was not largely a family effort (Street 2004). California agriculture was also firmly capitalist by the time it joined the United States, with few of the subsistence or semi-subsistence farms more prevalent elsewhere.

Workers from many other groups assumed the positions of the early indigenous farmworkers over time, including those from Asia (China, Japan, Korea, India, and the Philippines), Europe (Ireland, Germany, Britain, Italy, Portugal) and Latin America (Chile, Mexico, Central America), as well as Black workers from the US South and other American-born people (Daniel 1981; Street 2004; Walker 2004). Foreign born workers were brought to maintain low wages in the face of the consistent organizing undertaken by groups already there by creating an oversupply of farmworkers whenever possible. Many were recruited from parts of the world suffering economic and social upheavals, and were often misled about the nature of the opportunities that would be available to them in California. Conditions of travel and life upon arrival were often harsh. Chinese workers were subject to mob violence and individual assaults by whites, some of whom were organized in parallel to the Ku Klux Klan through the Order of Caucasians (Street 2004).

Widespread Depression-era labor unrest ultimately extracted new labor protections from the federal government, but key reforms that created a national minimum wage and protected the right to unionize were denied to agricultural workers. This national carve-out was a result of a political deal made to appease Southern Democrats intent on preserving Jim Crow by blocking any possibility of improving the circumstances of the region’s mostly Black agricultural workers (Farhang and Katznelson 2005). Then, from 1942 to 1964, the Bracero program formalized the pattern of supplying plentiful foreign-born laborers at low wages – this time from Mexico. Close to five million people were issued short-term worker permits during the lifetime of the program, and others came without official paperwork (Mitchell 2012). The industrialization of agriculture also intensified during this period – poisons were increasingly applied to crops to control pests, and workers suffered the consequences (Walker 2004). Ever since the Bracero era, California agricultural workers have remained predominantly Mexican.

            Across all of this time, whites racialized agricultural workers to justify their exploitation, arguing that people of color were less susceptible to disease, and that particular racialized groups, which changed over time, were “naturally suited” to backbreaking agricultural work (Holmes 2013; Maldonado 2009; Omi and Winant 2015; Street 2004). White farm owners and politicians also racialized agricultural workers to build up social barriers between groups in order to make cross-racial organizing more difficult (Valdés 2011). As a result, farmworkers have worked under changing legal circumstances that have had them work without wages or have kept those wages low since colonization. These systems have been extraordinarily effective. In 2019, the state earned over $50 billion in cash receipts from agriculture, making it the leading agricultural state in the nation (USDA Economic Research Service n.d.). The devaluation of agricultural workers of color that many white farmers both benefited from and helped create enabled white agricultural capitalists to pay lower wages and provide worse working conditions than they might have otherwise, thus generating more profits. In other words, racial capitalism provided a foundation for California agriculture from its origins to the present day, even though at certain moments of history poor whites also formed significant parts of the exploited class of farmworkers.

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            The tendency for white farmers to be valorized and for people of color farmers and farmworkers to be obscured is deep and long-standing. But while most of the agriculturally themed Salinas Valley cut-out billboard murals depict white-presenting people, what makes the collection more interesting are the murals that call attention to Latinx farmworkers. The paintings of them are dignified and show them as contributors not only to the local economy, but also the global food supply. For example, in Image 5, a Latino worker carries a long length of irrigation pipe on one shoulder in front of text that reads, “Salinas Valley: Feeding Our Nation.” The mural connects Latinx agricultural labor to masculinity, pride of place and pride in farmworker contributions to the global food supply. These images uniquely stretch the Jeffersonian valorization of white farmers to include Latinx farmworkers as well. This is significant in light of the systemic erasure of farmworkers from the public imagination of agriculture (Alkon and McCullen 2011).

            Returning to Althusser’s theory of ideology is useful here. In his accounts, ruling ideologies that support the status quo coexist with challenger ideologies that contest the status quo. But, ruling ideologies often incorporate parts of these challenger ideologies in ways that blunt their impact. As a result, ruling ideologies change over time, responding to changing political conditions in ways that sustain capitalism. Indeed, dominant agricultural ideologies in the US have changed over time in ways that parallel broader ideological change: from Jeffersonian agrarianism (Jefferson 1982), to white nostalgia (Adamkiewicz 2016; Maly et al. 2013; Mann 2008), to, most recently, symbolic multiculturalism (Gunderson 2021).[i]

            Multiculturalism potentially functions as a challenger ideology, but, when reduced largely to symbolism, becomes another facet of ruling ideologies. The Latinx workers depicted in the Salinas Valley billboard art can be read as examples of symbolic multiculturalism, which showcases people of color without fundamentally challenging their (collectively) subordinate place in the economy. Symbolic multiculturalism can do more than simply fail to make things better – in depicting people of color as happy and empowered, it can actively undercut efforts to reduce racism by promoting the idea that racism no longer exists.[ii]

Image 5: Billboard mural visible from highway 68 when entering Salinas from the south. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney.

            These outcomes can occur even when they are not the intention of the artist nor of the person commissioning the art. The first billboard cut-out people that artist Cerney created were commissioned by the owner of a local produce company to honor his workers, many of whom are Latinx, and to draw attention to their contributions to the food supply (Pogash 2005a). As the farm owner says, “I was tired of people bad-mouthing agriculture… thinking everything comes out of a bag or carton. I was trying to show the community it takes a lot of people to grow food, that farming is a good occupation and that people work in the fields to produce good food for us” (Paris 1999). The figures were modeled on employees, and one was even painted to honor a specific worker who had been with the company for over fifty years on the occasion of his 80th birthday (see Image 1) (Cerney n.d.). The website of the company that commissioned and displays the 18-foot-tall murals describes the labor that each of the billboard people are conducting: thinning, harvesting, packing, and weighing boxes of harvested lettuce, as well as overseeing the irrigation and the farm as a whole. The billboards and website together educate the public about the specific, diverse skills need to accomplish the tasks required of farmworkers and farm managers (Anon n.d.-c).

            Commentators quoted in press coverage of the billboard murals respond with enthusiastic endorsements, from the president of Salinas Valley Chamber of Commerce to a dean at nearby Hartnell College to a spokesperson for Salinas’s National Steinbeck Center (Garcia 2017; Paris 1999; Pogash 2005b; Roth 2013b). The latter says that the billboard murals “do what public art is supposed to do, it enriches the landscape visually and emotionally” (Pogash 2005b). Journalists call the work empowering and heroic (Garcia 2017; Pogash 2005b), or comment on the likeness between Cerney’s work and that of famed local author John Steinbeck, writing, “In a certain light, Cerney’s plywood figures are an extension of Steinbeck’s lifelong passion for giving voice to the voiceless” (Roth 2013b). The only slightly sour note is sounded by the chair of the Visual and Public Arts Department at nearby California State University Monterey Bay, who notes that the murals do not show, “poor working conditions, illnesses from pesticides and bad housing,” which is “a whole other story that’s never told” (Pogash 2005b). However, she is quoted as saying that this is because the farmer who commissioned the farmworker billboards is “positive and fair with his workers.”

            Herein lies the crux of interpreting the Salinas Valley agricultural billboard art, and other images like it. The intent of the artist and the person who commissions the art matters, as do the labor practices of the farm owners who commission the work and the experiences of the workers depicted. But what is more significant is, first, the way the art will be read by the general public, who know little to nothing of these individual level details, and second, the structural conditions that continue to leave most farmworkers vulnerable to violence and abuse. Even if the farm owners who commission images of farmworkers are all fair-minded employers who go above and beyond existing labor law, the structurally vulnerable position of most farmworkers remains. This vulnerability is not accidental. It has been reproduced at great cost to farmworkers over and over across California history, via, in part, racial capitalism and the ideologies that support it. In sustaining exploitative agricultural economies, these ideologies work in tandem with Althusser’s repressive state apparatuses (1971): the Border Patrol, Immigration and Customs Enforcements, and the courts.

            And, despite the above assertion that the farmworker murals give “voice to the voiceless,” this is not actually true. While the murals draw attention to the often-unacknowledged labor of farmworkers, they are painted by artists at the request of farm owners, not farm workers. The results depict a uniformly positive experience of farmwork, despite many farmworkers’ actual claims of difficult working conditions, low pay and abuse, and efforts to have their children enter occupations other than farmwork. None of the press coverage I found included any quotes from farmworkers. Rather, press coverage “gives voice” to the artists, the commissioning farm owners, and at times an array of other local business, cultural and educational leaders. In only one case were the opinions of farmworkers even tangentially referenced. Below, artist Cerney describes a conversation with the farmowner who first commissioned billboards depicting workers, showing how Cerney came to use real farmworkers as the models:

On his first commission, [the farmowner] said, “use your own people [as models].” I said “well, it’ll be more intimate, and you’ll get more of a kick out of it, if you use your own people.” So he relented and I used some of his farmworkers, and now, boy I hear stories of one of these guys who comes out here and cleans it off every couple of weeks, and they’re all proud of it, and it turns out to be a good thing. (Anon 2006)

Of all the existing coverage of the art that I found, this story told by the artist, as told to him by, presumably, the farmowner, is the closest thing to providing insight into farmworker reception of the art. Although the story could have been distorted as it was passed along from farmowner, to artist, to audience, there likely are indeed farmworkers who are pleased to be commemorated in art, or pleased to see images of other farmworkers so commemorated. But such a reception does not affect the billboards’ broader ideological impacts. Despite showcasing the role of Latinx farmworkers in the regional economy and the global food supply, the Salinas Valley agricultural murals also obscure the actual conditions in which much of this labor takes place.

Image 6: Billboard mural of worker bending over to trim iceberg lettuce. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney

            What the images show is as important as what they do not show: sexual violence, hunger, injury, exposure to poisons, wage theft, labor regimes that profit from racial hierarchies which leave farmworkers vulnerable by design, and the threat of deportation imposed by a nation that cannot stomach their presence and yet cannot do without their labor. In Fresno County, the most agriculturally productive county in the country with $3.7 billion dollars of annual farm sales, nearly half of farmworkers go hungry (Brown and Getz 2011; Wirth, Strochlic, and Getz 2007). Farmworkers also suffer from multiple, layered health problems that evolve over time in response to pesticide exposure, stoop labor, injuries, violence, and inadequate health care (Holmes 2013; Saxton 2015). Many are part of binational families and remain separated from loved ones for long stretches of time; their opportunities to visit home involve dangerous crossings of the US border that risk their lives (Holmes 2013; De León 2015; Lopez 2007). Women, who make up 29% of California farmworkers (U.S. Department of Labor n.d.), are particularly at risk of sexual violence at work (Waugh 2010; Yeng and Rubenstein 2013). One Salinas Valley field is known among workers as the “field de calzón,” or “field of panties,” because of how many rapes take place there (Tamayo 2000). But the Salinas Valley billboards do not show these grim realities. Instead, the billboard workers often look happy, as in the smiling lettuce worker in Image 6 who is bent over in the form of stoop labor that has long debilitated farmworkers. Crucially, what also is not shown is farmworkers’ long history of collective organizing against these abuses. Rather, the billboard murals depict individual farmworkers contentedly going about their daily labor in the fields in ones, twos and threes, as in Image 7.

Image 7: Billboard mural of woman weeding and thinning early crops. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural by John Cerney.

            Though you would not know it from looking at the roadside agricultural imagery of the Salinas Valley, farmworkers consistently found ways to organize for improved working and living conditions across Spanish, Mexican and US rule. In the first 13 years of the 1900s alone, Japanese farmworkers created successful labor associations, Japanese and Mexican sugar beet workers struck in Oxnard, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies) organized farmworkers known as bindlemen, and hop pickers staged the largest strike of farmworkers in California history at that time (it became known as known as “Bloody Sunday” or the Wheatland hop riot) (Street 2004). The Communist Party, Congress of Industrial Organizations, and the American Federation of Labor also all organized agricultural workers through the 1930s. California was a hot-spot: half of the more than 275 agricultural strikes of the 1930s took place there (Valdés 2011:6).

Although Braceros were brought to the US under conditions designed to limit their ability to organize for improved working conditions, they too undertook such efforts (Loza 2016). Mexican workers organized strikes starting in the very first year of the Bracero Program, 1942. Farmworkers kept striking through, among others, the DiGiorgio farm strike of 1947-1950, the Imperial Valley lettuce strike 1961, and the Delano grape strike of 1965. The latter led to the creation of the United Farm Workers of America (UFW), launching the farmworkers movement (Mitchell 2012; Valdés 2011). During the 1960s and 1970s, farmworkers increased their wages, improved working conditions, signed union contracts with employers that banned the use of highly toxic pesticides, strengthened pesticides regulation and helped legalize collective bargaining (Pulido 1996; Wells and Villarejo 2004). Other victories included banning the use of the short handled hoe, called el cortito, which required its users to damage their bodies by staying bent over as they used it, hour after hour, day in and day out (Jourdane 2004). However, many of these gains were later eroded as growers fought against their victories, as Republicans newly voted into public office in 1982 undermined their legislative victories, and as the UFW moved away from its early strategy of on-the-ground organizing (Wells and Villarejo 2004). Knowing this history is vital to developing the ability to see the ‘work’ that ideology does to deflect attention away from the long history of racial capitalism in agriculture, and the long history of resistance to it.

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Although all ideology has a relationship to the economic order of the day, the Salinas Valley agricultural billboards have a particularly close relationship to the local economy. While the billboard murals are regularly described in the press as public art, they are also commercial. Many of the images advertise the businesses in question. In some cases this is explicit, as in Image 8, which uses nostalgic, old-timey imagery featuring a 1940’s era tractor and oversized artichokes, a regional specialty, to draw people into a roadside store. Indeed, several of the agricultural billboard murals, such as Image 4, have run into problems with the government resulting from conflicting opinions about whether the images were advertisements, which have size and location restrictions, or art (Anon 2006, Anon 2007; Chatfield 2018). In other cases, the billboards themselves are objects of interest. For example, Images 1, 6 and 7 are listed as attractions at the demonstration farm and visitor center where they are located. Indeed, several of the farms that display the murals run agritourism projects on their properties (corn mazes, pumpkin patches, etc.), and thus need to find ways to encourage visitors (see Image 4). Many of the murals sell an image of agriculture that benefits the farms in question by tapping into nostalgia for purportedly better, simpler times to generate visitors and sales.

Image 8: Roadside mural features a wagon of oversized artichokes, one of the region’s specialties, being pulled by a 1940s-era tractor. Photo by Tracy Perkins. Mural artist unknown.

Although Cerney says money is not that important to him and that he leads a simple lifestyle (Anon 2006), the practicalities of making a living as an artist still require finding a way to financially support the art. Cerney says, ruefully, “When I can do exactly what I want to do without anyone telling me, that’s what I really love to do. I wish money wasn’t a factor. I would do nothing but my own work, place it in the field, and if my bills were paid I would do nothing but that” (Anon 2017). Instead, as he says elsewhere, “I do a lot of farm stuff because I live here and people ask me to do that” (Paris 1999). Roth makes the connection between Cerney’s art and the regional economy more explicit: “Farm life holds no special appeal for [Cerney], but given that his plywood people are placed in fields and he’s based in one of California’s most profitable farming regions, farm paintings are the ones that bring him the most attention” (Roth 2013b). Cerney speaks further to the impact of the commission process on subjects of his art, saying that early murals he did on the side of barns,

led to, eventually, people seeing your work and calling you, commercial businesses, “what can you do for me.” Because my work was realism. It was easy for the average person to take in and understand. My thought process, my way of working, was a little Norman Rockwellish, with a little sense of humor. Which everybody got, and everybody understood. So it was easy to sell to make a living doing that. So I got on that treadmill and started doing that. (Anon 2017)

Cerney’s explanations of the financial constraints on his art, and the commercial interests that have led to the creation of much of his agriculturally themed work, underscores the relationship between ruling ideologies and the economic systems in which they are enmeshed. Indeed, the murals are commissioned by people who can both afford the fee and either own or rent property on which to display the billboards, both of which tilt the art away from representing the ideas of poor people such as farmworkers. And given the long-established hostility of many farm owners to organized labor in the region (Flores 2016; Frank Bardacke 2011; Neubeurger 2013), depictions of farmworker organizing would not only not be commissioned by most farm owners, but to many would be unwelcome additions to the regional landscape.

Imagine, for example, artist Ester Hernández’s 1982 redesign of the famous “Sun Maid” raisin advertisement. The original advertisement features a young white woman wearing a red bonnet and holding a basket of grapes, referencing an Edenic agricultural environment, abundance, purity, and femininity. However, Hernández’s version features the harm experienced by grape workers. She replaces the fresh-faced girl with a skeleton that wears the same red bonnet and holds the same basket of grapes. Hernández’s text tells viewers that “Sun Mad” raisins are “unnaturally grown” with insecticides, miticides, herbicides and fungicides (Hutchison 2013). A subsequent image made in 2008, titled “Sun Raid,” recasts the original advertisement again, this time to critique workplace raids and the deportation of Mexican workers.

Or, consider Octavio Ocampo’s work, “Cesar Chavez: Portrait of La Causa,” which superimposes UFW leader Chavez over a landscape that could well be the Salinas Valley. An airplane sprays pesticides over skulls on one side of the valley, and crosses float above the mountains at the top of the image. The skulls and crosses represent harm and death to farmworkers, while on the other side of the valley, and showing through Chavez’s translucent face and body, are masses of farmworkers holding banners and signs, representing the farmworker movement. Such artistic representations underscore how far removed the Salinas Valley billboard art is from any critique of the agricultural industry. It is no accident that Hernandez and Ocampo’s paintings are displayed in museums rather than on the properties of commercial farming enterprises.

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            The Salinas Valley’s roadside agricultural imagery offers lessons bigger than their local impact. Some of them show that Jeffersonian agrarianism and white nostalgia continue to frame much of the public view of agriculture. Others show that even when these narratives are pierced with depictions of the nation’s Latinx agricultural workforce, just inserting into the public consciousness people whose contributions to society have been systematically minimized is not enough. American history is full of examples of workers who, when they are not erased, are depicted as happy in their circumstances or romanticized in other ways (think, for example, of the “happy slave” tropes present in so many depictions of plantation agriculture (2020)). Such depictions contribute to the continuation of exploitative labor regimes by associating the status quo with warm, happy feelings. As one admirer writes, “Every time I cruise by one of Cerney’s pieces, I think of the thousands of drivers and passengers locked in their cars. Suddenly, a purple and orange cow appears on a roadside field. Moods improve. Life seems simpler and easier. Even if it’s just for a moment. That, to my way of thinking, is the highest form of public art in public places” (Nordstrand 2014). This writer references a quirky mural of a multicolored cow as an example, but their comments also apply to the murals depicting the human components of agriculture – the farmers and farmworkers that make it all happen. But what is needed is not public art that reassures, but art that unsettles. Art that reifies old, romantic tropes of agricultural labor serves the ideological and commercial interests that have exploited farmworkers for centuries. What is needed is art that challenges ruling ideologies by centering workers’ interests rather than those of their employers.

Acknowledgements

Christopher Gunderson’s generous suggestions provided much of the theoretical framework of this paper. The author would also like to thank for their comments Ruben Espinoza, Rodney Green, Vernon Morris, Manuel Vallée, Lauren Richter, Christie McCullen, and participants in the fall 2019 “Currents: Humanities Work Now” series at the University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Dresher Center for the Humanities, at which an early version of this work was presented.

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[i] Christopher Gunderson provided this term as I have used it here. I have since found that there is also limited, overlapping use of the term in the published literature, used primarily to describe Canadian politics (Roberts and Clifton 1990).

[ii] Symbolic multiculturalism thus overlaps significantly with what other scholars have called color-blind racism, racism without racists, and multiracial white supremacy (Bonilla-Silva 2014; Omi and Winant 2015). All of these respond to claims of racism with surface-level improvements that allow some few people of color to rise to elevated social and economic positions without fundamentally challenging racism at its roots, thus sustaining overall racial inequality.

Tracy Perkins is an Assistant Professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University. She specializes in social inequality, social movements, the environment, agriculture and the politics of knowledge, and produces traditional written academic output as well as photography and digital humanities websites. Her book Evolution of a Movement: Four Decades of California Environmental Justice Activism (University of California Press, 2022) examines the political evolution of the California environmental justice movement from the 1980s to the mid 2010s. Dr. Perkins has degrees from UC Berkeley, UC Davis, and UC Santa Cruz, and previously worked as an Assistant Professor at Howard University. See more of her work at tracyperkins.org.

ArticlesPhotography/Art

Indigenous Oaxacan Visibility

Brenda Nicolas

The following article references the exhibition and programming series Boom Oaxaca. Presented by Arte Américas and the Centro Binacional para el Desarollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, “Boom Oaxaca: Conversaciones de Campo a Campo” is an invitation to participate in local and transnational conversations around food sovereignty and Indigenous sovereignty as issues that uniquely converge in the Central Valley’s Oaxaqueño community. Boom Oaxaca is guided by the work of Narsiso Martinez and Tlacolulokos, who use self-representation and visibility as an act of political rebellion, and as an autonomous approach to an ownership of culture. Grounded in the context of both Oaxaca and California, these artists create images of often invisibilized spaces, and in turn demand attention and humanize the experiences of their community. The exhibit is open until August 14th, 2022 at Arte Américas, Fresno California. For more information visit: https://boomoaxaca.com/

*

To talk about Latinidad, migration, or invisibility, requires us to examine Indigenous migration from Abiayala (Latin America).[1] When we consider Indigenous diasporas from Abiayala and across the Pacific, in addition to American Indians in the United States, California is one of three states with the largest Indigenous population.[2] In the San Joaquín Valley, Ñuu Savi (Mixtecos) from Oaxaca and Triquis make up most of the Indigenous Mexican diaspora.[3] Their migration and settlement patterns are due to Mexico opening to US foreign markets (1960s–1980s) that instituted agricultural reforms to seize communally owned lands throughout Oaxaca, largely ending self-sufficient farming.[4] The restructuring of the market caused pricing of corn and other main crops to drastically fall, which then prevented small farmers and families in rural Mexico to compete with large-scale companies. As Indigenous Oaxacans were forced to migrate, large-scale farmers subsequently benefitted from agricultural reforms and sought cheap and skilled labor from those fleeing the Mixteca region, including Triquis and Zapotecs mostly from the Sierra Norte, to be hired in Veracruz, northern Mexico, such as Sinaloa, San Quintin, and other Baja California areas, and eventually the United States.[5] With NAFTA, however, US contract recruiters sought Oaxacans as new immigrant cheap labor to supplant traditional migrant-sending rural communities from states like Michoacán, Jalisco, Guanajuato, San Luis Potosí, and Zacatecas who are largely non-Indigenous mestizos.[6]

As the “Boom Oaxaca” exhibition seeks to make visible, Oaxacan migrants are predominantly Indigenous peoples who have settled in San Diego, Los Angeles County, Oxnard, Santa María, Bakersfield, Fresno, Madera, Watsonville, and Hollister. The US racialization process towards migrants from south of the border, unfortunately obscures their unique identity and culture. We are Indigenous peoples, not Latina/o or Hispanics. As Native peoples to the “Americas” relationship to land is tied to Indigenous world views, practices, and mutual existence that shapes how Indigenous Oaxacan diasporas make meaning to the lands we are guests/visitors on. Therefore, to talk about Indigenous Oaxacans in the United States requires us to rethink how we have historically been racialized in this country, how our racialization affects us, and how it benefits colonial structures who force us out of our Native land, while extracting natural “resources” that give life to all beings. Ñuu Savi, Triqui, Zapotec, Chinantecs, and other Indigenous Oaxacan generations throughout California, continue to organize across the US and Mexico border.

Tlacolulokos, (Ruiz Gallery, Arte Américas) — Photo by Samuel Contreras

From grassroots efforts built in response to racial violence (“bullying”), labor injustices in the fields, living conditions in the US, to state repression in Oaxaca—particularly the horrific tortures, murders, and disappearances of teachers and allies during the 2006 uprising, and other unlivable conditions perpetrated and allowed under settler colonial governments—Oaxacans throughout California and in Mexico have never stopped organizing nor demanding justice. Grassroots cross-border organizations like the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales (FIOB) have left their footprints for newer generations, and nonprofits like the Centro Binacional Para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño (CBDIO), and the Mixtec Indígena Community Organizing Project (MICOP) have also enabled our visibility and our voice as Indigenous peoples by speaking against racial, cultural, and linguistic homogenization that affects both our self-determination and rights to existence as Indigenous peoples. Children of migrants who were brought as children or who were born in the United States are maintaining and constructing new ways in which as Indigenous Oaxacans we say, “still here,” “we do exist” and we continue to be Indigenous despite thousands of miles away from our ancestral homelands.[7] From the FIOB youth to the Oaxacan Youth Encuentro (OYE), the Tequio Youth Group in Oxnard, Los Autónomos in the Central Valley, the OaxaCal student group at UC Berkeley, other youth-led Oaxacan collectives, cooperatives, including Oaxacans with a large social media presence, demonstrate how Indigeneity is neither static nor is it detached from homeland or collective existence. Being Ñuu Savi, Triqui, Zapotec is a complex interplay between land, memory, survival, and relational being.

This space (not a place) that Oaxacans refer to as Oaxacalifornia, a term coined by anthropologist Michael Kearney, takes many shapes and reflects both the violent and nonviolent experiences Oaxacans generations have confronted.[8] As younger generations come of age, however, they increasingly reflect how their unique position as Indigenous guests on Native land informs their interactions with the Native people whose lands they are guest on. In her work with relocated American Indians and Indigenous Oaxacans in Silicon Valley, Renya K. Ramírez (Winnebago/Ojibwe), refers to this coexistence as “Native Hub.” For Ramírez “Native Hub” is a collective network of support relocated American Indians and Indigenous Oaxacan migrants create using their knowledge, cultural, social, and political processes to build intracommunity belonging away from home.[9] As a growing field of study, Critical Latinx Indigeneities (CLI) privileges Indigenous diasporas from “Latin America” in scholarly work by considering social, political, cultural, religious, and other forms of collective Indigenous practices in the US. Since its formation in 2013, Indigenous and non-Indigenous scholars—long dedicated with Indigenous migrants—take on a critical analysis that considers Indigenous diasporas’ unique position as guests on Native land and settler colonial interventions across Abiayala.[10] In doing so, CLI scholars have added to the complexities of Latinidad, Chicanidad, and mestizaje.

The art presented by Zapotec artists Narsiso Martínez and the Tlacolulokos bring together diverse Indigenous Oaxacan experiences in the San Joaquín Valley of California. Based on self and community representation, they portray a plurality of Oaxacan migrant experiences spanning the Central Valley and Los Angeles County. Martínez, who was born in Oaxaca and migrated to California at the age of twenty, represents the hard labor of Oaxacan migrants working in the fields. Unique to his style is the use of produce boxes, rather than canvas, which he gathers himself from local grocery stores. With the use of these recycled boxes, he gives greater meaning not only to those who help produce what they hold, but to everyday consumers who seldom think of the people exposed more than eight hours a day to scorching heat waves and pesticides. As a former farmworker himself, Martínez began working in the fields as a young kid. During college, he returned to work in the fields to pay for his tuition. His story, however, is not his alone—many Oaxacan children raised in the Central Valley have had similar experiences, including some of the organizers and contributors to this exhibition and those they grew up with, such as members of the CBDIO and FIOB Fresno.

Narsiso Martínez, Always Fresh, 2018, Ink, Charcoal, Gouache, Gold Leaf, and Collage on Reclaimed Produce Boxes, Compound LB. © 2018, Narsiso Martinez. Photo by Roger Gonzalez.

Young Oaxacans in the fields and at school face endless anti-Indigenous discrimination by the larger non-Indigenous Mexican community they grew up alongside. This discrimination, at times being physical violence, frequently targets Oaxacans who speak their Native language in public, have darker skin and other bodily stereotypical features, and simply for “looking Indigenous.” For example, take the 2012 campaign, “No Me Llames Oaxaquita” (“Don’t Call Me Little Oaxacan”), where Indigenous Oaxacans organized to demand the Ventura County School District ban the derogatory term “Oaxaquita” and “Indito” (little Indian) from their schools after incessant ridicule and bullying.[11] Yet this case, which received international news, is not new—it has been happening since the first wave of Oaxacan children, many of whom are now in their late forties and fifties in Los Angeles. Through his art, Martínez demonstrates his own experience as a former field worker, which is often the experience of many other Oaxacan youth in the US.

Similarly, Dario Canul and Cosijoesa Cernas, two Zapotec men from the Tlacolula-based art collective known as the Tlacolulokos, show a multitude of Oaxacan urban experiences in their murals. Particularly, they capture the experiences and emotions between different urban landscapes that Oaxacan migrants cross (Los Angeles and now Fresno) and those they leave behind (mostly the Central Valleys of Oaxaca and more recently the Sierra Juárez). Like Martínez, the portraits they draw have names, are living, and not made up. They express sadness, longing, happiness, rebellion, thoughtfulness, firmness, and seriousness. More than a simple mixture in art, they bring the nostalgia and impact on traditions that migration has had on Oaxacans by displaying the portraits with tattoos, piercings, baggy jeans, blue LA Dodger baseball caps, white T-shirts, and Nike Cortes, while merging them with the traditional clothes and hairdos of the pueblos, alongside a wind instrument like a trumpet.

Tlacolulokos, Guerreros de la Calle, 2021, acrylic paint on cotton canvas, Arte Américas. Commissioned for Boom Oaxaca with a grant from The McClatchy Fresno Arts Endowment of The James B. McClatchy Foundation. © 2021, Tlacolulokos. Photo by Roger Gonzalez.
Tlacolulokos, Low Rider, 2021, acrylic paint on cotton canvas, Arte Américas. Commissioned for Boom Oaxaca with a grant from The McClatchy Fresno Arts Endowment of The James B. McClatchy Foundation. © 2021, Tlacolulokos. Photo by Yadani 
Tlacolulokos, Hazlo tu Mismo, 2021, acrylic paint on cotton canvas, Arte Américas. Commissioned for Boom Oaxaca with a grant from The McClatchy Fresno Arts Endowment of The James B. McClatchy Foundation. © 2021, Tlacolulokos. Photo by Yadani 

Although Cernas and Canul have never migrated to California, through conversations they record on both sides of the border, they are able to understand the difficulty migrants express of living and working hard in the US to barely get by, while attempting to send remittances to their loved ones. Meanwhile, those who stay in the pueblos feel the everyday pain of having their child, husband, parent, or sibling del otro lado (on the other side) wondering when, and if at all, they will see each other due to their immigration status. One of their mural panel displays from their 2017 exhibition, “Visualizing Language: Oaxaca in Los Angeles,” states, “Donde quiera que vayas” (wherever you may go), which makes homage of all generations in diaspora that we have not forgotten where we come from, even if we were not born there. Their identity and love for their pueblos is ours too—we continue to be communally invested in and with our pueblos and relatives back in the hometown. In other words, we live, embody, and in multiple ways continue our traditional practices with our pueblos.

These multiple forms of practices are rooted in Indigenous ways of being described as comunalidad, according to Ayuujk intellectual, Floriberto Díaz Gómez (1951–1995) from Tlahuitoltepec Mixe, and Zapotec intellectual, Jaime Martínez Luna (b. 1951) from Guelatao in the Sierra Juárez. Comunalidad are practices rooted in the community’s collective wellbeing. They are run by, for, and with the community. These communal practices happen through dances, playing in the Oaxacan brass bands, harvesting, and taking on a cargo (position) in our usos y costumbres (Indigenous customary law)municipalities and its agencies, especially for pueblos of the Sierra and Mixteca region that still practice multiple communal ways of life, and do not have electoral politics or political parties.

As Indigenous peoples in the United States, our comunalidad practices and beliefs of “doing for the good of the people” have also been used in demanding that our rights be respected. Most recently, the killing of Zapotec youth, Gerardo Martínez Chávez, by the Salinas (Monterey County) police has sparked outrage among the community. The ongoing murders and brutality by the police against Brown and Black unarmed men for crimes they did not commit.[12] However, Indigenous men, mostly from Latin America, like that of Mr. Martínez Chávez and Maya Ki’che’ day laborer Manuel Jamines Xum, shot and killed by the LAPD in 2012, have made it all too clear that Indigenous peoples continue to be invisible beyond the countries they came from. Both men’s language was their Native Zapotec and Maya, respectively, and therefore community organizers and other human rights advocates argue that they did not understand the English or Spanish commands of the officers nor were they offered a translator. Under federal law, any public agency receiving federal money, like a hospital, clinic, or police station, is required to have a translator available for the person in question, regardless of legal status. Organizations throughout California, like that of the Centro Binacional Para el Desarrollo Indígena Oaxaqueño, the Frente Indígena de Organizaciones Binacionales, the Mixteco Indígena Community Organizing Project, and the Comunidades Indígenas en Liderazgo have begun to provide interpreting services for Indigenous Oaxacan migrants, and others as well, throughout the country.

As a space in which multiple Indigenous Oaxacan voices come together with allies, “Boom Oaxaca” attempts to make visible distinctive and common ground experiences as Ñuu Savi, Triqui, Zapotec, and other Indigenous Oaxacans. Like the artists themselves, the portraits, Indigenous organizations and sponsors of the exhibition, and academics who are Zapotec, we say invisible no more! We continue to exist and be Indigenous! To intentionally map ourselves in these spaces is to resist settler colonial erasure inside and outside Latinidad, Chicanidad and mestizaje. Like Indigeneity, Oaxacans are diverse, have held fluid identities to survive elimination, and have complex realities that cannot be singly defined, but do require the creation of “comfortable spaces to have uncomfortable conversations” about Indigeneity, nationalism, racial violence, even if others may not want to listen or brings up critiques of Indigenous appropriation. As Indigenous peoples, responsibility and respect are a comunalidad process among each other as pueblos originarios (original pueblos/peoples). Many Oaxacan generations in diaspora are still closely related to our respective pueblos. These same Indigenous communal values of respect for the land and its peoples are now part of our relationship building with the Native peoples on whose land we are guests throughout California. To our Indigenous Oaxacan communities and relations, we give thanks—Yoshxleno!

~ A Zapoteca mother & scholar, Brenda Nicolas (Sierra Norte).


Notes:

[1] Also spelled Abya Yala.

[2] Census 2020

[3] Fox and Rivera-Salgado 2004; Holmes 2013

[4] Andrews 2018

[5] Hernández-Díaz 2019

[6] Cornelius 1990; Durand, Massey, and Zenteno 2001

[7] Odilia Romero, Los Angeles Times, 2021.

[8] Kearny 1991, 1995; Rivera-Salgado 2014; Stephen 2014

[9] Ramírez 2007

[10] Blackwell, Boj Lopez, and Urrieta, 2017.

[11] For more on the “No Me Llames Oaxaquita” campaign see, Nicolas, “Reclamando lo que es nuestro: Identity Formation Among Zapoteco Youth in Oaxaca and Los Angeles” (2012); Marco Werman, “Oxnard Group Trying  to Make ‘Oaxaquita’ Epithet Illegal,” The World: Public Radio International, May 31, 2012, https://www.pri.org/stories/2012-05-31/oxnard-group-trying-make-oaxaquita-epithet-illegal.

[12] Nix et al. 2017.

Dr. Brenda Nicolas (Bene Xhiin, Zapotec) is Assistant Professor in Global Studies at UC Irvine where her work looks at the transborder communal experiences of Zapotec diasporas in Los Angeles. Dr. Nicolas received her PhD in Chicana/o and Central American Studies (UCLA). She has an M.A. in Chicana/o Studies (UCLA) and an M.A. in Latin American Studies from UC San Diego. She holds a B.A in Sociology and Latin American Studies from UC Riverside. She lives in LA and enjoys spending time outdoors with her son and husband.

La Dra. Brenda Nicolás (Bene xhiin, zapoteca) es Profesora Asistente en la facultad de Estudios de Globalidad en UC Irvine donde su trabajo analiza las experiencias comunitarias transfronterizas de las diásporas zapotecas en Los Ángeles. La Dra. Nicolás recibió su doctorado en Chicana/o y Estudios Centroamericanos (UCLA) donde también completó una Maestría. Tiene una Maestría en Estudios Latinoamericanos de UC San Diego y recibió una licenciatura en Sociología y Estudios Latinoamericanos de UC Riverside. Vive en Los Ángeles y le gusta pasar tiempo en las afueras con su hijo y esposo.

Articles

“Know the hands that feed you”: Gentrification and labor migration in West Marin

Jessica Lage

Gentrification and dual migration

One day in fall of 2019, my family and I made one of our frequent trips along the winding pastoral roads of West Marin to spend a day hiking to the beach. The early morning air was cool, the California Buckeye had lost their leaves and the Big Leaf maple were turning shades of orange, red, and yellow. We passed several pelotons of bicyclists, cohorts of motorcycles enjoying the curves, and then a string of fifteen bright-colored Lamborghinis raced by. When we arrived in Point Reyes Station, the town bustled with people drifting from the bookstore to the bakery to the specialty food stores. As on most weekends, groups of cyclists in Lycra and bikers in leather collected on the sidewalk to enjoy a fresh scone and a coffee, and Porsches outnumbered pickups.

West Marin—the northwestern corner of Marin County—is only an hour from San Francisco and East Bay cities.[1] Despite its proximity to the urban metropolis, it feels remote, and two-lane coastal or country roads are the only access routes.[2] It is rural in appearance—mostly ranchlands and small towns whose physical landscape gives few clues of a gentrified population—but it is no longer the relatively isolated agricultural area it once was. West Marin is experiencing profound socioeconomic changes that are reflective of the landscape of growing wealth and expanding poverty across the Bay Area.

Rising global inequality, the global housing crisis, and the epidemic of foreclosures put the spotlight on gentrification in cities around the world.[3] Gentrification is often thought of as an urban phenomenon, yet in Northern California, what’s happening in rural Marin County—where there is gaping income inequality and a severe housing squeeze—is an essential part of the bigger picture of gentrification in the San Francisco Bay Area as a whole. It illuminates the complex interrelationships between urban and rural areas—and how they give rise to and are intertwined with each other.

Over several decades, as the technology industry has transformed the Bay Area, the influx of people and capital into urban areas has played an important role in shaping rural West Marin: recreation and agricultural tourism, both in part initiated and cultivated by urbanites, draw tourists from surrounding areas; second-home owners and short-term rentals have driven housing prices up and removed rental units from the housing market. But while stories about gentrification often disproportionately focus on the in-migration of wealth and the displacement of working class communities, in doing so, they overlook another critical aspect of gentrification: dual migration, or the in-migration of workers who come to meet the needs of the service economy. Several streams of in-migrants have made West Marin what it is today, but the Mexican immigrants and their Mexican American families who began to arrive in the 1960s are those who sustain the agricultural and tourist economies of gentrifying West Marin.

Migration to West Marin

Before European explorers and Mexican settlers arrived in West Marin, Coast Miwok people lived in the area for thousands of years. Shellmounds date the history of Coast Miwok people in Marin to 5,000 years ago, while oral histories date the lineage as twice as long.[4] More than 100 villages, some with several hundred inhabitants, dotted the point’s sloping mesas, the shores of Drakes Estero, and the hills across Tomales Bay.

The earliest non indigenous settlers in Marin County were known as Californios, families who had received land grants from Spain and Mexico in the late 1700s and early 1800s. In the mid-1800s, immigrants from all over the world flooded to California during the Gold Rush; many who came to make their fortune from gold discovered that ranching would be more profitable than mining, as demand for local products grew with the great influx of forty-niners to San Francisco. Irish, Swiss-Italian, and Portuguese immigrants found their way to West Marin, where they ran dairy ranches. Chinese laborers also ended up in West Marin, building the narrow-gauge railroad that would run between Sausalito and Sonoma County, up the east shore of Tomales Bay; many Chinese settled and worked on potato and dairy ranches and as cowboys or fishermen.[5] Later, in the early 1900s, Japanese families started farms on the peninsula, until they were interned in prison camps in the 1940s.

In the nineteenth century, West Marin’s year-round grasses and cool maritime temperatures made it the most productive dairy land in California. By the late 1800s, it was a center of agricultural production for San Francisco, which, as a result of the Gold Rush, had become a financial hub of the state. Wealthy families from the city retreated to summer residences in West Marin, beginning a tradition of second homes in the small coastal towns. In the 1920s, some urbanites began to commute from West Marin to jobs in the city. By the 1950s, some summer people had retired to their vacation homes and lived there year-round. West Marin towns also appealed to artists, who were drawn by the scenery as well as the quiet lifestyle and still relatively cheap land. Socially and politically, West Marin was a conservative area, comprised mostly of ranchers and others involved in agriculture, along with a smattering of artists, retirees, and summer residents.

In 1962, Point Reyes National Seashore was established and began to attract visitors from the nearby urban centers of the Bay Area. Over time, a small tourist industry around outdoor recreation took hold. Also beginning in the 1960s, back-to-the-land hippies began to arrive, fundamentally changing West Marin and bringing the social and political flavor associated with West Marin today. “It was the people who came in the 1960s and ‘70s who made it liberal,” one long-time resident told me.[6] The members of the 1960s counterculture did more than bring different politics and professions; they also founded some of the essential community institutions, including the community center, the health clinic, and the radio station.

Another stream of migrants began to arrive around the same time as the counterculture, with as significant an influence, though less visible: Mexican immigrants who first came to work on the dairy ranches. In the decade after the seashore was protected, surrounding agricultural land was also protected, through a county zoning mandate and—a few years later—a successful agricultural land trust. As a result, unlike in many rural gentrifying areas, agriculture maintained its hold in West Marin. In order to compete with industrial agriculture in the rest of California, Marin’s small family ranches found ways to connect to the growing foodie culture of the Bay Area. Beginning in the early 2000s, an agricultural-based tourist economy flourished; West Marin increasingly became a destination for tourists and second-home owners, not only because of its natural beauty and protected seashore, but also because of its local food economy and agricultural attractions.

Camilo Hermosillo is said to have been the first Mexican immigrant to settle in West Marin. He came to the United States with the Bracero program in 1952, but later returned to Mexico. In 1964, he made his way to the Marin/Sonoma border, where he found work on a dairy ranch. Hermosillo was from Jalostotitlán (Jalos), a town in the Mexican state of Jalisco. Others from Jalos soon followed him and found work on the dairy ranches as milkers. Point Reyes became the primary destination for the Mexican immigrants from Jalostotitlán,[7] and an extended network of migrants from Jalos and surrounding villages began to settle in West Marin.[8]

The local newspaper estimated that in the early 1970s, the Spanish-speaking population in West Marin was 300 and that by the early 1980s, it had tripled.[9] One immigrant who arrived in the 1980s told me that when she came, “only the people who worked on the farms were Latino. So it was very hard to see any Latinos working at the Palace Market [local grocery store] or at hotels.”[10] Over time, two things changed: the young men who immigrated from Mexico began to bring their wives and girlfriends and start families in West Marin; and the need for more service workers grew as visitors to the area increased and the tourist economy expanded.

Over the next few decades, immigrants from Mexico continued to come for jobs on the dairies. Others found work on oyster farms in Tomales Bay. Family members found work in West Marin towns—in restaurants, lodging, stores, housekeeping, and landscaping. As the children of Mexican immigrants have grown up in West Marin, fluent in English and with the opportunity to go to school and continue with higher education, second- and third-generation Mexican Americans have gone on to find jobs with the National Park Service, in schools and banks, pharmacies, and other professions. “Now you will see Latinos working in every corner of this area.”[11]

Mexicans and their Mexican American families have been critical to sustaining the agricultural and tourist economies. They have also transformed West Marin—in workforce, school population, and community presence—yet they face difficulties that are accentuated by gentrification, including lack of housing, food insecurity, invisibility in the workplace and misunderstanding on the part of the Anglo community.

Cows grazing in a West Marin pasture.

“Invisible labor”

In West Marin, gentrification—in-migration of upper-income residents, displacement of workers, and the increasing gap between housing prices and wages—has gone hand-in-hand with the preservation of agriculture, and agriculture itself has become gentrified. The productive landscape and its products are principal amenities, drawing visitors and amenity migrants who romanticize and consume them as much as the scenic vistas, beaches, kayaking, and hiking opportunities in the national seashore.

But agricultural labor, mostly done by Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans, is largely invisible to the tourists who come for ranch and farm tours, and to others who consume the specialty cheeses and grass-fed meats produced in West Marin. Publicity for ranches and farms, local foodie tours, and websites about local farming and culinary attractions all praise the hard work of ranching families and farmer-owners, but wage laborers are rarely, if ever, mentioned. One website written by a self-described “passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture, artisan food producers, and craft beverage makers” posts recipes, articles about heirloom vegetables and local farmers markets, and stories about local ranchers and artisan cheese- and cidermakers. She describes the people she writes about as: “…farmers [who] are passionate and committed in everything they do. Many come from families that have worked the land for generations; others have left traditional careers in search of a simpler, more authentic existence. All of them feel a connection to the earth that threads to their core.”[12]

Similarly, publicity for a local food and farm tour company quotes a rancher and cheesemaker as describing her favorite part of her “job” as “working in the cheese room, especially in the early morning while the [animals] are being milked next door in the parlor.”[13] When I spoke with the rancher, I asked her to tell me about her employees who do the milking and cheesemaking. She described to me her first employee, a Mexican immigrant who lives in a manufactured home on the ranch with his wife and two adult sons—both of whom work in restaurants. “We learned [our animals] together,” she told me, indicating how important this worker is to her operation. She later hired another full-time employee, a Mexican man who lived in a low-rent apartment in Petaluma with other day laborers. She described him as an “awesome worker”—he worked six days a week for four years, never missed a day and never arrived a minute late. He drove 30 minutes each way and sometimes worked a split shift.[14] Employees like these, and their work, are not mentioned in the glossy spreads that idealize the work of the family rancher.

Workers are also often left out of community conversations about local agriculture. I spoke with one resident who described to me a series of conversations, over the course of a year, about agricultural sustainability. He recounted his attempts to convince the steering committee that workers should be included in the conversation, and the committee’s response that it would be too controversial. “It was very frustrating. We all say Marin is the most progressive place in the world, but sustainability is on the back of the workers.”[15]

Similarly, in 2009 a local bookstore made “farming and the rural life” the focus of the “Geography of Hope” conference, an annual event that “gathers leading writers and activists together for a feast of readings, discussions, and activities to inspire and deepen an understanding of the relationships between people and place.”[16] Though the theme was agriculture, labor was not one of the topics. Before the symposium, someone anonymously put posters all over the town of Point Reyes Station calling into question the sustainability of West Marin farms and ranches. The posters were titled, “Whose Geography of Hope” and asked, “what about farm labor?” It publicized that some agricultural laborers “live in broken down trailers with moldy walls, old wiring, and cesspools,” and that “nearly half the families coming to the Point Reyes Food Pantry are Latinos who work and live on local organic farms and dairies.” The poster went on to say:

“Know the Hands That Feed You” the advertising goes… Those hands are brown. They are the hands of campesinos …who dig the soil; birth, feed, and milk the cows; …make the local artisan cheeses; and seed, harvest, shuck, and pack the shellfish for your gourmet feasts. These men, women, and children are not on the promotional posters. They are nowhere to be seen on the farm tours…[17]

A good deal of recent literature exposes the dark side of local and organic agriculture, including food insecurity among agricultural workers and the exploitation of workers who produce supposedly safer and healthier food. It makes clear the link between worker exploitation and their existence “in the shadows.”[18]

A social worker in West Marin said to me, “When workers are invisible, you can do anything you want with them.”[19] Removing workers from the public face of gentrified agriculture makes hiding working conditions easier: housing, long commutes, complicated worker-employer relations, and difficult access to food are all “invisible” parts of the of the idyllic pastoral scenes and delicious local food that draw tourists and second-home owners to West Marin.

A flyer for a tenant’s rights workshop, in Spanish and English

Affordable housing in West Marin (a detour)

Resistance to development is ubiquitous in affluent suburbs throughout the Bay Area and across the nation, but Marin County residents are particularly fierce in their opposition, especially to multi-unit and affordable housing.[20] Every seven years, the state of California calculates a Regional Housing Need Allocation (RHNA) based on projected population growth. For the 2007 to 2014 cycle, the Bay Area issued permits for only 57 percent of the 214,500 units the state mandated. Marin County issued permits for only 32 percent of the units required by the RHNA, lower than all other Bay Area counties.[21] In recent years, Marin residents have rejected several proposals for projects that would have provided low-income housing in the county, citing concerns about traffic,[22] water supply, impacts on schools, loss of open space, and “community character.”[23] While developing more housing units is complicated by institutional and infrastructure factors, for the most part, these concerns are smokescreens for simple racism and classism.

All of these things come into play in unincorporated West Marin, where the housing crisis is felt even more acutely than in the rest of the county. Institutional factors (zoning, Coastal Commission regulations, costs imposed by the county) and geographic and infrastructure factors (septic systems, water availability, and transportation limitations) create obstacles that are real limitations to development. In addition, land conservation has not only reduced available acreage, but even more importantly, has made West Marin a desirable place to visit and to live, which both raises prices and directs supply toward short-term rentals. It has also given rise to a community with a strong vision of what the physical and demographic landscape should look like, a community that aims to influence development in both formal (e.g., county development regulations) and informal (e.g., community pressure) ways.

The large low-wage workforce necessary to maintain the economy in West Marin accentuates the need for affordable housing, and second-home owners and short-term rentals dominate the housing rental market and capture the supply. Adding to the lack of housing is the imbalance in wages and housing costs. Earnings in the agricultural and service sectors are not sufficient to pay for housing in West Marin.  Within Marin County (which is a notoriously high earning county),[24] West Marin has some of the lowest median personal earnings.[25] The census tract that encompasses Point Reyes Station, Nicasio, Tomales, and Dillon Beach has a median income of $32,280. Nearby Bolinas and Stinson Beach were slightly lower, at $31,766, and Olema and Inverness slightly higher, at $33,037. The median personal income in all of West Marin in 2012 was $32,000. Other Marin County towns are at the other end of the spectrum: the median personal income in Tiburon is $80,595; in Mill Valley it is $75,808, Ross is $64,378. When broken down by race, Latino earnings countywide average just under $23,800, whereas the median personal income for whites countywide is $51,000.[26]

One woman who works in social services in West Marin told me that even though workers generally earn more than minimum wage, it’s not enough. “I don’t think anyone pays minimum wage in the area… , I have to be honest. They pay above. But people are making $12 an hour.” An income of about $3000 a month or less is normal for a Latino family of two wage earners in West Marin, but for a family of four, rents are about $3000. “No one can afford the rents compared to the incomes—it’s a huge gap.”[27]

Housing for agricultural workers

For agricultural workers, housing has been precarious for several decades. In the 1980s, Mark Dowie, West Marin resident and investigative journalist, wrote an exposé for the San Francisco Examiner Magazine on the miserable conditions of ranch worker housing in West Marin. “On many, although not all the ranches, housing quality was pretty terrible…trailers mostly, some hooked up to water via a garden hose and with inadequate sewage disposal.”[28] It was common to see raw sewage around the houses. At that time, unlike on the dairy ranches today, workers were charged rent for their housing, although they were paid minimum wage—about $3 per hour at that time. In addition, workers had little recourse to improve conditions; ranchers had agreed among themselves not to hire workers away from each other, making workers essentially indentured laborers.[29]

Since then, many ranches have made improvements. However, over three decades later, housing for ranch workers continues to be difficult to obtain, is often in poor conditions, and puts workers in a vulnerable position. The problem is multifaceted—related to the high cost of housing in West Marin and the lack of availability, and inadequate housing conditions, and compounded by the fact that many workers are undocumented—making them more vulnerable.

Most dairies provide on-site housing because ranches tend to be far from other housing options and milking hours are demanding: milkers usually have two shifts, one beginning at three or four a.m. and another beginning midday. Many ranch workers prefer to live on the ranches where they work rather than commute long distances to work. But too often, despite the improvements, ranch housing means overcrowded, unpermitted units, and substandard conditions.[30] Many units are “under the radar”—in garages, barns, commercial spaces, or recreational vehicles.[31] In addition, ranch housing is important not just for the workers who are essential to the agricultural economy of West Marin, but also for family members who are indispensable to other sectors of the economy, as they may work in restaurants, markets, bakeries, landscaping companies, and other jobs in towns throughout West Marin. Often families squeeze into on-ranch housing so as not to separate the family, or because rents are so high for other units. Despite its problems, ranch housing is one of the few affordable options in West Marin.[xxxii]

Ranches that are on national seashore land add another element to the housing crunch for workers in West Marin. When Point Reyes National Seashore was created, it became the first national park to allow agriculture within its boundaries—still a controversial decision. Ranching families continued operations under a special permit called “Reservation of Use and Occupancy” (RUO). Many RUOs have now expired and have become “lease permits,” which still allow ranching, but do not allow ranchers to provide housing to people who are not working for their ranch.[33] From the community’s perspective, it’s a “slap in the face” when the park cracks down on ranches that provide housing.[34]

Many people feel that the housing crisis in West Marin has been aggravated by the loss of housing on NPS land in recent years.[35] Dairy rancher Albert Straus (his ranch is in Marshall, not on NPS land), has been active in speaking out about the lack of housing for ranch and other local workers, and the repercussions for the community. With the help of local historian Dewey Livingston, Straus documented the housing units lost on NPS and state park properties in the last 50 years—far beyond loss of housing on ranches due to permit changes. They tallied about 135 structures that had served as homes that the park service either removed or abandoned beyond repair. Because creating new housing in West Marin is so difficult, making better use of existing housing is often the best chance for increasing the housing stock, but by doing away with park housing, the NPS is removing existing housing. The loss of housing on ranches affects not just ranch workers, but also often other local workers, and often means displacement for a whole family.

With housing so difficult to find, many residents don’t complain about substandard conditions or report them to the authorities, for fear of finding themselves with no housing at all. Agricultural workers, many of whose housing is tied to their work, and who may be undocumented, can be even more reticent to complain, as they could find themselves without housing or work.[36] People often end up feeling grateful that they have housing, a social worker told me, since they aren’t paying out-of-pocket—even though it may be in terrible condition. But the housing isn’t “free,” she points out. The cost of housing is reflected in the reduced salary of the workers.[37]

Workplace housing can generate not only a sense of unwarranted gratefulness, but also tangible worker vulnerability: if ranch workers lose their job, they lose their whole community. Several interviewees described having to leave West Marin because of a disagreement or dispute with a boss or co-worker in an on-site housing situation. Undocumented workers are especially vulnerable, and many agricultural workers in West Marin are undocumented immigrants or have family members who are undocumented. Even families who have been here many years are sometimes undocumented. One person told me: “I can tell you that there are families who have been living here twenty years and don’t have their papers, and I think that ranches take advantage of those employees. Not all ranches. There are a few that are better, provide a decent place to live.”[38]

Selection of local cheeses at a West Marin market

Food insecurity

Low-income workers in West Marin not only struggle with housing more than others in the community, but also with access to healthy and affordable food. In 2015 the Marin Food Policy Council explored equitable access to food in the county and identified West Marin as a top priority for where to focus their food security efforts. The size of West Marin (over 50 percent of the county in land mass) and the sparseness of the population make getting to the grocery store difficult because of travel time and the cost of gas. Low-income families have to shop less frequently (once a month), which means that they have to purchase mostly packaged food. But offerings in West Marin are limited. Local markets (including a small supermarket in Point Reyes Station, and several small markets in Inverness, Inverness Park, and other nearby towns) stock food that is not well matched to the needs or incomes of families in West Marin: they carry few staples—and those that they do stock are expensive, because of the stores’ own costs. The council also found that the food sold in Point Reyes Station, Marshall, Inverness, and other West Marin towns, rather than serving locals, caters to a bifurcated tourist market: either people who are recreating in the area, usually camping or traveling along the coast in an RV, and looking for lower-priced, easy-to-prepare meals; or travelers or second-home owners who are looking for high-end foodie-type foods, like locally produced artisan cheeses, specialty crackers, cured meats, and fruit preserves. The council also found an overabundance of alcohol, tobacco, and junk food in West Marin stores.

Another barrier to eating well for low-income families in West Marin is that many stores do not accept (or are not even aware of) food assistance programs. The council found that not all grocery stores in West Marin accept CalFresh (California’s version of SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).[39] At the time of the study, no stores in West Marin accepted WIC (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children) (though several thought they did). Many low-income families rely on WIC and not being able to use it at any West Marin grocery stores also means longer drives to buy food.[40]

The barriers to access to healthy food in West Marin mean that ranch and farm workers are not able to eat or feed to their families the food that they produce. It is particularly striking—though not unusual—in an area celebrated for quality ingredients, boutique artisanal production, and sustainable agriculture that the workers not only can’t afford to eat what they produce, but also have difficultly accessing healthy and affordable food. While this difference between low-income and high-income residents reflects the particulars of gentrification in West Marin, it is a widespread phenomenon among agricultural workers in locations all over the United States.[41]

The wall of an abandoned building in Point Reyes Station displays posters for CLAM, the Community Land Trust of West Marin, and Coast Guard Housing. One of CLAM’s most important projects has been converting the former Coast Guard housing site in Point Reyes Station to a neighborhood of affordable homes. The photo also shows that gentrification in West Marin is often not immediately visible in the built environment.

Tensions in the community

Several people I talked to in West Marin described the community as made up of three primary segments: ranchers, newer arrivals (hippies, ex-hippies, second-home owners, and others), and Latinos. A Mexican immigrant who has worked with the community since the 1980s told me: “I see three groups here: the ranchers, who are fairly conservative; the newcomers—hippies, and those who bought property after; and the Latinos. Among the Latinos, there are two groups: one that works on the ranches and another that works in the hotels and food services.”[42] She described her sense of the relations between ranchers and Latinos and newcomers and Latinos: “The ranchers, normally, don’t participate in any event—or haven’t until now participated in any of the community events that I’ve coordinated or that I’ve seen. Not one rancher.” She described their sense of power as the boss, the employer, as pervading relationships and impeding social interactions and went on to say that “with the community of newcomers and the hippie community, they accept more the [Latino] community” and support attempts to bring together Anglos and Latinos. “And then there are others who have been here for a long time…in Inverness or Point Reyes and they are the ones who support the most the Latino movement. Definitely, they are the most involved, or at least they are working so that there is more friendliness.”[43] Other community members commented on how segregated the community is. One non-Latino who moved from California’s Central Valley, where there is a large Latino population and agricultural sector, observed that compared to her experience there, “this place is surprisingly segregated in its white and Latino life.”[44]

Tensions over class and ethnic background are not explicitly stated, but often pervade interactions among community members. A recent criticism from the Anglo establishment demonstrated the gulf between the communities. Ostensibly with the intention of being inclusive, many began to complain that Latinos do not participate as members of the Board of Directors for the numerous non-profits in West Marin.[45] To the Latinos I spoke with, this demonstrates a myopic view of what integrating Latinos into the community might mean and is an unrealistic starting point for doing so. Many Latinos are commuting long distances or are working more than one job to afford a rental in West Marin. Many have children. Many, because of their level of education and facility with English, are not comfortable with the idea of being on a board with highly educated Anglos. Even Latinos who were born and grew up here, one interviewee told me, are often reticent to participate in the community. “They’ve gone to school here… And you wouldn’t believe it, but there’s an idea that ‘I don’t speak well.’” The sense of insecurity, she believes, is rooted in cultural and linguistic differences. “It’s not that they don’t speak well… Our Latino community uses a lot of Spanglish, our Anglo community doesn’t. So that’s the difference.”[46]

Another Latino resident from Puerto Rico, who has been active in the Anglo and Latino communities and has served on many boards, told me that his experience has been different from most Mexican immigrants in part because he hasn’t had the difficulties of citizenship and documentation. Apart from most Latinos having other more immediate concerns, he told me, if people cared about Latinos, they would not want to put them in situations in which they wouldn’t be comfortable.[47]

Prejudices emerge in other ways as well. One woman I spoke with told me that she is surprised how patronizing toward the Latino community the board members of an affordable housing group have been.[48] Their comments reveal at best unfamiliarity with the Latino community, and in many cases, deeper discrimination and often defensiveness. In interviews, several non-Latinos expressed ignorance about the Latino community and little idea of how to overcome what they see as a cultural gulf. One non-Latino told me that it’s difficult to know who to approach within the Latino community and how to approach them. She said that it wasn’t for lack of trying that the two communities remain separate, “but there is a gulf there and people are unsure of how to reach across cultures.” For her, the Latino community is hard to reach, especially since she doesn’t speak Spanish. “The Latino community can be opaque,” she said. “I feel pretty unprepared. I often feel like it’s not even my place to try to reach across [the gulf] and work with an entire community who has a different background.” She went on to say, “A weeklong bootcamp on how to talk to people in other cultures would be good,” as a precursor to making an overture to the Latino community.[49] Another non-Latino I interviewed noted that “Hispanics are such a tight community,” organized around “nuts and bolts issues” like food and medical care. “They feel like they already have community and don’t need ours.” Anglos are seeking community, he said, but don’t have the same cohesion as the Latino community in West Marin.[50]

A Mexican woman who has worked in West Marin for over 30 years told me that she feels that the white community has little understanding of the Latino community and is quick to criticize cultural differences. On holidays like Mexican Independence Day (September 16), or other celebrations, she says, “I’ve heard complaints about ‘a lot of noise.’ And that is true… But they are cultural differences.” And while she says that a lack of understanding about Mexican history and Mexican culture is at the root of their complaints, she also wonders why they can’t, in the meantime, enjoy the celebration or even simply say, “OK, it’s one day, and I’m going to cover my ears—tolerance.”[51]

The housing crisis is another situation pervaded by underlying prejudices. One non-Latino resident, a renter who has had to move numerous times, expressed a deep-seated feeling of difference between herself and Latinos who also struggle to find and maintain affordable housing. She commented that Latino workers are most affected by high housing costs, but tried to justify the differential access to housing. She told me about three Latino men she works with who commute to their jobs in Point Reyes Station. Two come from San Rafael (about 40 minutes each way) and one from Tomales (about 30 minutes each way). They work hard and they need to feed their families, she said, but still, to her they seem different: “They’re just in a different realm. It’s just evident that there is a hierarchy,” she said.[52]

She linked belonging in the community, and perhaps also right to housing, to “rootedness.” Her grandparents bought a house in Inverness and retired there in 1962, and she spent her childhood summers there. She explained that she considers being rooted in place essential. When I asked her what that means for workers, who need to live in a place for practical reasons—like a reasonable commute to their job—but may or may not have generational ties, she responded vaguely that housing for workers is “complex because it has to do with race and class,” and that that most people in West Marin don’t want to have a conversation about race and class.[53]

Discussions and community meetings about housing are largely segregated as well, presented as either ranchworker housing for Latino families or housing for seniors or for long-time residents who can’t afford to stay. One housing activist told me, “It’s rare out here to have a meeting where you feel like you’re in it together.”[54] A member of a group that addresses the problem of short-term rentals acknowledged to me that the group has not interacted with the Latino community. She was defensive about my inquiry, adding that the group was “not designed to solve the cultural problems of West Marin.”[55]

The discourse among non-Latinos suggests that they view the housing issue for Latinos as different from that for “locals.” Locals is a vague term but is mostly used to mean non-Latino residents who have lived in West Marin for many years. People make false distinctions when they talk about housing for those “who grew up here” who have been displaced and for Latino families—often most affected by the housing crisis—as though they could not be the same. Yet, as one woman emphasized to me, many of the Latino families who are displaced grew up in West Marin too, the second- or third-generation families of Mexicans who immigrated in the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s, and they are as much locals as anyone else. The assumption that the “locals” and “the kids who grew up here who can’t afford to stay” are only white, are mistaken. The local kids who can’t afford to stay are as likely to be second or third generation families of Mexicans, “but in terms of the way people talk, you will hear that distinction.”[56] 

The conversations about housing may be separate for other reasons as well. Evening meetings are difficult to attend for Latino families who may have long commutes (to Petaluma or Santa Rosa), or who work two jobs or a job that doesn’t have a nine-to-five schedule, or who have young children who need care. Language may also be a barrier, as well as the separation that permeates the community in general. As one housing activist told me, the problem of housing for the two communities is often treated separately, “because we’re already thinking in a bifurcated way.”[57]

Displacement and exclusionary displacement

We rely so much for everything now on the Hispanic population. All the people who work in the stores are Hispanics and all the people who we rely on for services, and yet there’s a commute into West Marin on Petaluma-Point Reyes Road every morning.[58]

In many cases, working-class migrations in gentrified places become daily in- and out-migrations of workers who can’t afford to live near their jobs.[59] If a worker loses existing housing, the chances of finding something affordable in West Marin are slim. Loss of housing can occur because of a lease change on a ranch within the national seashore, as I describe above, or because a ranch downsized operations when it shifted to organic production and reduced the number of workers as well as the herd size.[60] Other families have been evicted from ranches because of substandard housing conditions. Not just agricultural workers are affected when ranch housing is lost. When a popular oyster farm went out of business, for example, five or six housing units were removed, but the closure affected many more people than just their workers. Family members had jobs in nearby towns and their children went to the local schools. Sometimes a worker or family may lose housing because their rental unit is sold to new owners who want to keep the home as a weekend retreat for themselves or turn it into a short-term rental.

As rents increase, “what I have seen is more people having to move out of the area.”[61] In neighboring Sonoma County, in 2015 a two-bedroom apartment went for about $1,800 to $2,100 per month, but there was nothing available in that price range in the Point Reyes area. One Latina testified at a Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting about the housing crisis: “You find housing but they are $3,500 or $4,000 a month and we cannot afford them.”[62] Another spoke to say that she has lived in Point Reyes Station for nineteen years, “but I live with the stress that one month I can pay the rent, but I never know if I will make it for the next month.”[63]

Some workers who came several decades ago for jobs on the dairy ranches eventually sought better housing opportunities or retired outside of West Marin. “Most [Latinos] who were here in the ‘80s and ‘90s have moved,” one immigrant told me.[64] Families have dispersed to towns in Sonoma County—Rohnert Park, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa—and as far as Modesto in order to find affordable housing, but in many cases, they commute back—30 minutes, one hour, or more—to West Marin, for jobs, school, church, or simply to be with their community at events or gatherings.[65]

In places like West Marin, displacement, which is central to process of gentrification, exists alongside what is called exclusionary displacement—when workers who are the foundation of the economy, both in the agricultural and service sectors, haven’t been able to move to West Marin because of housing costs. There are more jobs in West Marin than there are homes, and incomes are far below what one would need to afford West Marin rents. These workers commute long distances to work in West Marin, as the tourist economy expands.

Conclusion

Recreation- and agriculture-based tourism and a housing market dominated by second-home owners have not only changed West Marin’s economy, but also its communities. As tourists and amenity-seekers move to West Marin, so too do low-wage service workers, especially Mexicans and Mexican Americans, whose labor has been critical to sustaining the agricultural and tourist economies. Worker migrations are not always residential migrations—rather, they may mean daily in- and out-migrations, because wages for service workers are far below those necessary to afford the rents and home prices in West Marin. Workers either are displaced as the tourist economy creates possibilities for higher rents or can’t move to West Marin from elsewhere to be close to their job.

Dual migration and exclusionary displacement are another manifestation of the ripple effect of wealth and people from urban core to hinterlands that gentrification causes. These migrations highlight that gentrification, while its visible effects may be local, is a regional phenomenon, produced through regional processes like housing and job-market shifts and community displacement. Gentrification in West Marin is also a product of regional relationships that have developed over decades: from land conservation and land-use regulations, to tech wealth, to the market for locally sourced and organic food that urban gentrification, West Marin is itself a largely a product of the urban core.


[i] The research area was a portion of West Marin that includes Point Reyes National Seashore, and the towns surrounding Tomales Bay— Inverness, Olema, Point Reyes Station, Marshall, and Tomales.

[ii] The Countywide Plan and the Local Coastal Program only allow road improvement projects that will enhance safety, but not increase the capacity of the roads.

[iii] Lees, L., T. Slater, and E. Wyly. 2008. Gentrification. New York: Routledge.

[iv] Coast Miwok Tribal Council. http://www.coastmiwokofmarin.org/our-history.html

[v]Haworth, E. 2021. “Honoring the Asian American Legacy in West Marin” Point Reyes Light. May 5.  https://www.ptreyeslight.com/features/honoring-asian-american-legacy-west-marin/. Avery, Christy. Tomales Bay Environmental History and Historic Resource Study. Point Reyes National Seashore. San Francisco, CA: National Park Service, Department of the Interior, 2009.

[vi] Holland, Wade. Interview with author. February 4, 2015

[vii] Bolinas, just south of Point Reyes, has a community of Mexicans from Sinaloa.

[viii] Anonymous. Interview with author. June 24, 2014.

[ix] The Light on the Coast. 1986. Point Reyes Station.

[x] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015

[xi] Ibid.

[xii] Pavone, K. Farmista’s feast. https://farministasfeast.com.

[xiii] Hill, E. 2018. Flavors of West Marin book. Food and Farm blog.

[xiv] This rancher also described at least three other employees to me, full- and part-time. Anonymous. Interview with author. October 20, 2016.

[xv] Porrata, Carlos. Interview with author. March 24, 2016

[xvi] Quoted in Fairfax, S., L.N. Dyble, G. Tor Guthey, L. Gwin, M. Moore, and J. Sokolove. 2012. California cuisine and just food. Boston: MIT Press: 160.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Gray, M. 2014. Labor and the locavore: The making of a comprehensive food ethic. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

[xix] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016.

[xx] An employee of the planning department described to me community response to development as “vitriolic” (Anonymous. Interview with author. October 25, 2015).

[xxi] The numbers are not in for the current cycle, 2015-2023. Interestingly, for the 2007-2014 cycle, Marin was not ranked last in the Bay Area for permits issued for “very low” and “low” income housing. In fact, it far surpassed most other Bay Area counties in those areas, but other counties came closer to meeting goals for “moderate” and “above-moderate” housing. ABAG (Association of Bay Area Governments) 2014. San Francisco Bay Area progress in meeting 2007-2014 Regional housing need allocation (RHNA). https://abag.ca.gov/files/RHNAProgress2007_2014_082815.pdf

[xxii] The Housing Element does not explore why this concern, though widespread, does not hold weight; the bulk of the traffic in Marin is due to commuters, who, if they were able to live closer to their jobs, would not take up so much space on the roadways.

[xxiii] Community Development Agency. 2015. Marin County Housing Element 2015-2023. www.marincounty.org/HousingElement

[xxiv] Even so, 38 percent of Marin households are categorized as “extremely low,” “very low,” or “low income.”

[xxv] The wealth in the housing market comes from outside of the community.

[xxvi] Burd-Sharps, S. and K. Lewis. 2012. A portrait of Marin: Marin County human development report 2012. American Human Development Project of the Social Science Research Council. http://www.measureofamerica.org/docs/APOM_Final-SinglePages_12.14.11.pdf

[xxvii] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[xxviii] Mark Dowie emphasizes that “then and now there were and are exemplary ranchers who provide good housing and pay decent wages to their workers.” Email message to author. May 4, 2016.

[xxix] Dowie, Mark. Email message to author. May 4, 2016.

[xxx] California Human Development Corporation. 2008. Evaluation of the need for ranch worker housing in Marin County, California. Prepared for the Marin County Community Development Agency. July 2008: 6; Community Development Agency. 2015. Marin County Housing Element 2015-2023. www.marincounty.org/HousingElement.

[xxxi] California Human Development Corporation. 2008. Evaluation of the need for ranch worker housing in Marin County, California. Prepared for the Marin County Community Development Agency. July 2008: 10.

[xxxii] In some cases, mobile homes on a ranch are rented to directly non-ranch workers, because the lack of housing is so severe for those in the Latino community.

[xxxiii] Lease permits have a more complicated history than I go into here. Laura Watt details it in her 2017 book, The paradox of preservation: Wilderness and working landscapes at Point Reyes National Seashore. Oakland, CA: University of California Press.)

[xxxiv] Anonymous. Interview with author. June 14, 2016.

[xxxv] Relationships between individual ranches and the park vary, and many ranchers describe a good relationship with the park.

[xxxvi] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016; Bach, T. 2012. Farm worker housing: 200 units planned. Point Reyes Light, February 2. http://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/farm-worker-housing-200-units-planned.

[xxxvii] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016.

[xxxviii] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[xxxix] In many cases, storeowners said they accept CalFresh, but on further questioning they didn’t actually know what it was or the machine was broken and they could not accept it.

[xl] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 10, 2016; Marin Food Policy Council. 2015. Equitable access to healthy and local food in Marin County: Preliminary report on policy priorities to the Board of Supervisors, October. http://ucanr.edu/sites/MarinFoodPolicyCouncil/files/223505.pdf.

[xli] Brown, S. and C. Getz. 2011. Farmworker food insecurity and the production of hunger in California. In A.H. Alkon and J. Aygeman (eds.). Cultivating food justice: Race, class, and sustainability. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[xlii] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[xliii] Ibid.

[xliv] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 20, 2015.

[xlv] Anonymous. Interview with author. February 2, 2016; Porrata, C. Interview with author.  March 24, 2016.

[xlvi] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[xlvii] Porrata, C. Interview with author. March 24, 2016.

[xlviii] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 20, 2015.

[xlix] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 15, 2016.

[l] Anonymous. Interview with author. December 14, 2015.

[li] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[lii] Anonymous. Interview with author. April 13, 2016.

[liii] Ibid.

[liv] Anonymous. Interview with author. December 14, 2015.

[lv] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 15, 2016.

[lvi] Anonymous. Interview with author. March 20, 2015.

[lvii] She did go on to say that since many Latino work on ranches and live in on-site housing, housing for the Latino community is to some extent a separate issue.

[lviii]  Holland, W. Interview with author. February 24, 2015.

[lix] Nelson, P.B., L. Nelson, and L. Trautman. 2014. Linked migration and labor market flexibility in rural amenity destinations in the United States. Journal of Rural Studies 36: 121-136.

[lx] Bach, T. 2012. Farm worker housing: 200 units planned. Point Reyes Light, February 2. http://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/farm-worker-housing-200-units-planned

[lxi] Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[lxii] Gonzalez, F. 2015. Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting. November 27. https://www.marincounty.org/depts/bs/meeting-archive.

[lxiii] Reynoso, M. 2015. Marin County Board of Supervisors meeting. November 27. https://www.marincounty.org/depts/bs/meeting-archive.

[lxiv]  Anonymous. Interview with author. September 25, 2015.

[lxv] Bach, T. 2012. Farm worker housing: 200 units planned. Point Reyes Light, February 2. http://www.ptreyeslight.com/article/farm-worker-housing-200-units-planned; Anonymous. Interview with author, September 25, 2015. Commuting back to where one has been displaced from for work, school, or community is not unusual in gentrifying areas (See Dirks, S. and D. Katayama. 2017. American suburb. Forum. KQED radio, February 8. https://www.kqed.org/forum/2010101858666/kqed-looks-inside-the-changing-bay-area-with-american-suburb).

Jessica Lage received her PhD in Geography from UC Berkeley. She is the author of a guidebook to Point Reyes National Seashore. She works as an independent researcher and writer.

Reviews

The High Sierra, A User-Friendly Wilderness

Jon Christensen

I was worried about Kim Stanley Robinson’s new book The High Sierra: A Love Story.

At 560 pages it felt like a mountain to be climbed. It also seemed to be structured like his latest science fiction novel, The Ministry for the Future, which can be a bit of a slog, though an often riveting and sometimes terrifying one. That book mixes narrative sections with expository chapters that read like scientific and bureaucratic reports, intentionally on Robinson’s part, drawing attention to how even gray literature has become dystopian in the age of climate change.

Plus, I have heard Robinson speak a few times in recent years in defense of John Muir and wilderness in ways that made me think he was wandering into terrain that could be trouble.

But Robinson has been hailed as “our last great utopian visionary” (the Los Angeles Times Book Review) and “one of the most important political writers working in America today” (The New Yorker). And I happen to more or less agree with both of those assessments. He’s a utopian at heart, but he calls what he writes about “optopia,” for the optimal or best possible world given the circumstances. That means his sci-fi novels are deeply entangled with realistic politics, even when set in outer space. The Ministry for the Future takes on the climate crisis on Earth and is, at once, the most dire and most hopeful thing I’ve read about climate change.

Isosceles Peak from Dusy Basin, Tom Killion, 2012, used with permission from press

So if Robinson is going to write a book about the High Sierra, one of my favorite landscapes, too, I’m ready to tag along, even if it turns out to be a challenge.

Besides, I like Robinson. When I was editor of Boom, we published a long interview with him entitled “Planet of the Future.” And we’ve invited him to give talks at UCLA several times. Robinson is smart, nimble, insightful, generous, and critical, all qualities one appreciates in an interlocutor, whether on stage, in a seminar, or, I now imagine, sitting around a barebones camp high in the mountains: Robinson is an ardent advocate of ultra-light backpacking.

After reading a couple of chapters of The High Sierra, I wondered how on Earth he could sustain interest and a narrative through-line with all the rapid, seemingly random switches between categories he entitles “My Sierra Life,” “Geology” and “Psychogeology,” “Sierra People,” “Snow Camping,” “Moments of Being,” “Routes,” “The Swiss Alps,” and “An Annotated Sierra Bibliography.” Several of these categories have more than a dozen numbered chapters with subtitles. There are seventy chapters in all, along with copious photographs, maps, and illustrations.

But I forged on and soon settled into a pleasing rhythm. By the end of the book, I felt like I could keep going. And it made me want nothing more than to ditch everything and head to the High Sierra to ramble and scramble around like Robinson.

Schematic of a typical Sierra basin, used with permission from press.

Robinson’s book is a kind of “dérive,” a method of drifting through urban landscapes randomly as a means of discovery that was invented by French Situationists in the mid-twentieth century. It is said to have given form to “psychogeography,” too, the study of how different, usually urban, landscapes affect observers psychologically, or how certain landscapes might have their own affect, their own emotional states. Robinson is a fan of psychogeography, which he stretches to psychogeology.

So, The High Sierra: A Love Story, it turns out, is in some ways an urban form applied to the wilderness. And, oddly, it works. His dérives in the Sierra, and through Sierra geology, history, and literature, undertaken from the time when he was an undergraduate at U.C. San Diego in the early 1970s, to today from his home in Davis, create a pleasing personal thread upon which to hang all kinds of interesting observations, critiques, and analyses.

Robinson is a magpie — of theory, science, story, scene, and anecdote. A smart bird, like the magpie, he picks up objects and turns them into tools for thinking. This book will appeal to aficionados of California, lovers of the Sierra Nevada, scholars who enjoy seeing big ideas brought down to Earth, and readers of Robinson’s science fiction, who may enjoy seeing the writer work through on his own planet ideas he has tested on other worlds.

When Robinson gets to John Muir and wilderness, I did want to quarrel with him, but in a friendly way. Robinson thinks that Muir has gotten a bad rap for racist comments in his writings. He has read everything Muir has written — published and unpublished in the archives — and argues that there are only a few passages portraying Indigenous people negatively. And Muir grew to respect Native Americans, so remarks in his early texts should not stand in for a long writing career.

I interviewed Robinson recently for High Country News. In that conversation, Robinson characterized Muir as a literary character. He exists on paper now. He is someone we read about, review, and argue about. I think that gets it just about right. Muir as problematic text is much better than Muir as patron saint.

Robinson likes theory. But he packs it lightly – like everything in this big book. He uses actor network theory, for example, to argue that the mountain range was an actor in saving itself from development, along with Muir and many others. Scholars may find his casual use of complex ideas frustrating at times. But if you keep in mind that this is all something like a conversation around camp after a day off-trail, it seems apropos.

The Sierra’s east side. Photo courtesy of the press.

Take wilderness, for example. Robinson goes on a bit of a tirade against critics of the wilderness idea, like historian Bill Cronon, who once wrote an influential essay entitled “The Trouble with Wilderness” in the 1990s. Robinson seems to think that thinking critically about the history of wilderness, as a concept and an administrative designation for some public land, actually threatens those public lands. But there doesn’t seem to be much, if any, evidence of that in the twenty-six years since Cronon’s essay was published.

Where Robinson really throws down in a way that could be consequential is on the subject of names in the High Sierra. There are many peaks named for racists, eugenicists, and assorted ne’er-do-wells. Robinson would like to change that, and he has good ideas about how it should be done, de facto if not de jure. He and a group of friends already organized an expedition to name one numbered but unnamed peak after Henry David Thoreau.

Robinson demonstrates in these ways how nature and culture are scrambled in the Sierra. Part of him doesn’t seem to like that. He seems to want the High Sierra as pure wilderness, in a way. At the same time, he recognizes the muddle. And like many of the characters in his science fiction novels, he relishes a good argument without end.

Robinson isn’t the last word. And I don’t think he wants to be. Like his renaming project, which he says should be a kind of never-ending game, he just wants to keep playing in the High Sierra. It’s a pleasure to play along. The High Sierra, it turns out, is a user-friendly wilderness, both figuratively and literally.

California is largely terraformed. That is, human beings have transformed it with massive Earth-shaping works like the California State Water Project. At the same time, the least terraformed part of California, the High Sierra, is humanized in Robinson’s book. It’s made for rambling and scrambling and thinking with. It is a good place to contemplate, from a high angle, being alive on a planet spinning in space.

In turn, the High Sierra serves, for Robinson, as a model for terraforming other off-worlds. Quite a dérive, after all. And well worth the trip.

Jon Christensen  is an adjunct assistant professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and Luskin Center for Innovation and a founder of the Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies at UCLA.

Poetry

my name is wolf (of learning to let you go)

Chiwan Choi
abducted / displaced / then / misplaced / your body an object / lost /it learns to 
breathe / differently / because you can’t / let them know you / are still alive // you learn 
histories / that were never true / nor did it belong / to you / you learn to / shape your 
tongue / into lies / until even you / begin to / believe // but pretty sounds / from your 
lips / after you tamed your howls / never were enough / for them to / love you / and the 
coldness / of the window / in an unexpected april / reminds you / how you will fight /
 now / to never belong / to them // you are born / with two things / all yours— / your 
body / of connected / imperfections / and your death / to come // they convinced you / 
one is broken / and you have failed / by loving it // the other / your greatest fear / to 
run from / everyday / for the rest of / your mortgaged life // snow / touches / 
bewildered bodies / today / the wind / sideways / like a question /forbidden: // what is 
it / that your dying / has held / so valuable / that they have / worked so hard / to steal / 
from your heart

*

daughter, it’s been months since i spoke to you / these days are covered in snow, places 
melted / hiding the cold pools of water in skies reflected / i woke up with my arms 
curled tight / clutching something i can no longer remember // yesterday we laughed on 
our walk / at the tiny footprints left on the steps of / a house around the corner / we 
wondered who lives there / what small lives // daughter, how does time work where 
you have gone / i want to say that i picture you in light / in a place more picturesque 
than this / but i only see your face surrounded by endless black air / how old are you 
now, daughter / because it’s getting harder to remember / harder to forget // are you a 
child / are you older than me / or are you still unborn / as you were when you left // it’s 
winter now / isn’t it always so? / and we are all dying // will you return then / and claim 
the life / you were meant to own // walk through this world / touch the resentful 
texture / of a leaf still green / and cry just to feel / warmth on your face // daughter, 
each day i am afraid / of learning to let you go

*

in the shower / i scraped dirt off my skin / with an old razor / and wondered if death / is 
different under hot water // but only small cuts / opened up on / my shoulder / my hip /
 my thighs / and the blood came / and then dried eventually / as day turned / into gone / 
into leaving / into promises brought / in the dark // i feel it stinging / even in places / 
unharmed / i keep reaching / for my eye / checking to see if my lid / is bleeding // i woke 
up / missing people / i woke up / loving them / but what can such / sentiment mean / in 
a snow covered forest // i hear / her voice / calling me / wolf / the outline / of my body / 
made by / her lips // little sparks / of pain / explode on the surface / of me / and there is 
/ so much more / left / to carry

Chiwan Choi is the author of 3 books of poetry, The Flood (Tía Chucha Press, 2010), Abductions (Writ Large Press, 2012), and The Yellow House (CCM, 2017). He wrote, presented, and destroyed the novel Ghostmaker throughout the course of 2015. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including The New York Times MagazineONTHEBUS, Esquire.com, and The Nervous Breakdown. He is currently at work on My Name Is Wolf, the follow up to The Yellow House. Chiwan is a partner at Writ Large Press, a Los Angeles based indie publisher, focused on using literary arts to resist, disrupt, and transgress, and a member of The Accomplices. Chiwan was born in Seoul, Korea, spent his early childhood in Asunción, Paraguay, and now splits his time between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
Copyright: © 2022 Chiwan Choi. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.
Original Art by Fernando Corona
Reviews

A Beam of Light to Break Through Isolation: Mirosevich’s Spell Heaven

Jennifer Carr

A fishwife sits across from a writer and asks, “Do you know the difference between a fairy tale and a sea story?” When the writer says she doesn’t, the fishwife continues, “One begins, ‘Once upon a time.’ The other begins, ‘This is no shit.’” So begins Spell Heaven, Toni Mirosevich’s linked collection of stories and impressions and Borges-evoking philosophical meditations. Even the title evokes a question (verb? noun? adjective? all of these at once?) in a quest to connect in what has become an era of disconnection—politically, and especially in the isolation of COVID-19. Though there are only a couple of sparse references to the global pandemic that made landfall in Northern California (the collection’s setting) at the end of January 2020, Spell Heaven is the encapsulation of the forced separation that shook (it’s no stretch to say) all of humanity in a way that people under 102 years old had never experienced.

            Living through a global pandemic provides its own kind of “fish story,” but it’s the real thing that occupies Mirosevich, herself (like her narrator) the daughter of a fisherman and a cannery worker, bound inextricably to the sea, body and soul. Not ineffably, though—Mirosevich’s personal language and cadence is of the sea and is a known language to everyone who has descended from seafaring or sea-sifting people.

            In relating the fishwife’s own memory in the collection’s first story, “The Devil Wind,” our narrator places herself and the reader in the middle of the Thanksgiving Day storm of 1960: “She was holding on to the baby. She grabbed hold of the pole. The boat dipped over on its side. Over she went, she was over, they were over the side, in the sea, she was holding on, she and the baby, they were in, now out, now in, dunked into the sea, again and again. The pole bent like a tree branch. Like a branch in the wind. The pole bent but did not break. Tell me again, about this life on the sea. How a back bends and bends and does not break.” The sentences are tossed by uneven swells and surges, of waves crashing and hulls listing catastrophically. Even in quieter moments, landlocked moments, the lines move at times at a twelve-knot clip over rolling swells, at other times at anchor, letting light ripples nudge the lines in trochaic pulses (Mirosevich is also a poet).

            It’s the landlocked isolation from the sea, from the life she wished for herself, following in her father’s footsteps to be captain of her own vessel, that informs our narrator’s reflections. Our narrator, who shares more than a little biography with the author, is a self-proclaimed loner, though despite locking herself away at home or in a motel or her office at work, she is always reaching out, crossing the street to say hello to a new person on the pier, or on the routes between local dives and the sketchy parking lots between them, populated by the “out crowd,” the clique of outsiders and misfits, crabbers with day jobs or who live in their vans, who are holding on from one day to the next, waiting for a little luck or maybe just a little grace.

“There’s big luck—” Mirosevich writes, “being born with your choice of which silver spoon you want your nanny to use—and there’s small luck, the kind everyone gets a shot at.”

            Our narrator’s wife, Stevie, is the ballast to the loner tendencies—upon moving to a new neighborhood, the couple are hyper-aware of the perceptions of their relationship (loving lesbian neighbors—gasp!), though it’s not the vapors but acts of violence that make our narrator and Stevie wary. Our narrator’s reaction is to withdraw into the house and set up watch, while Stevie’s approach is of the “keep your enemies closer” variety.

            In “Murderer’s Bread,” we learn, “Stevie’s reaction to our emissary from the neighborhood’s welcome wagon is to plant with even greater fervor. […] My reaction is to be extra vigilant. To keep watch. There is:

            The guy who stands in the open doorway of his house…who gives us the evil eye every time we walk by.

            The boy I catch in the act of writing bitch on our fence in green felt pen…

            The man who mock-whispers “AC/DC” loud enough for us to hear when we go to put out our garbage cans for pickup. When he’s sure he’s got out attention, he pulls out his Johnny-jump-up and pees in the street.

            The family that launches bottle rockets toward our yard on July 4…”

            Stevie works overtime making bread for the neighborhood. Ice may or may not thaw, fog rolls in with a little less chill, and neighbors who are no less dangerous might become less dangerous to our narrator and her wife. Our narrator is no stranger to triangulating perceptions, both as a member of the LGBTQIA+ community and as the daughter of Croatian immigrants with the bluest of collars who lived a neighborhood with a slightly higher income bracket. In the end, though, a revelation: a knock on the door, our narrator spies through the peephole, the narrowest of views, most myopic of views, a potential threat. The door opens, it’s the man across the street, a man she’s been watching, a man who’s been watching her—he holds up her wallet, “I think you dropped this,” he says.

            There’s no instant redemption, but there is a recognition, a connection finally (despite one of them going to San Quentin for twenty-five to life for murder). Our narrator and Stevie are seen as of the neighborhood, people to be protected.

            Seeing and being seen is the recurring theme throughout Spell Heaven, the tide that surges and recedes, through familiarity, memory, Alzheimer’s, death, gentrification—surging, receding. “Memory is not so firmly fixed,” Mirosevich writes, and in fact, it moves and changes shape and reorders itself. Memory in this collection comes at once, swift as the tide or a taste of a madeleine, but in this case, the madeleine is an in-class presentation by one of the narrator’s students, or it’s a knock on a motel door, or a stranger’s tug on their facemask. “Does the smell of the center’s noontime meal—clam spaghetti and green beans, a steal for only two bucks—trigger a memory of the taste of salty bakalar, your favorite childhood dish, an image of your mother standing watch over a pot on a woodstove?”

The route through the stories, is circular, themes reappearing in the spin of a lighthouse light. Reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse, where a story ends on one theme or character, and the next chapter picks up in that new character’s point of view and so on, Mirosevich’s stories pick up the subject illuminated by the beam of a lighthouse light, following them for a time, then onto the new subject until that light swings around again. In “Our Lady at the Derby,” our narrator waits for a stroke of luck, falls into a memory at the knock of the door, a memory of violence and intrusion, but instead of the current knock replicating that threat, there is offered the briefest moment of connection, a man just doing his job, upon which the narrator reflects: “the fact that our lives are going round and round, round and round, that we don’t know where we’re headed, that what we do know about each other is not enough it’s not enough. He doesn’t stop to stare at me or my home-brought objects: my lucky mouse pad, the Derby glass. He just turns away and the curtain closes and the sweeping stops.” The loss, the confusion isn’t resolved, we’re still waiting on our luck to come in; the next story, “Spell Heaven,” picks up that theme, follows that lighthouse’s beam of our narrator’s gaze, “When you’re lost and looking for a sign, an omen. A clue. When the wishbone pull doesn’t yield the lucky stem. When you no longer believe in heaven or hell, past lives or future, yet still hope for a hint…”

            Memory and understanding both are “sneaking around the edges of the frame,” nearly within grasp, in each of these stories: Stevie recalls a memory of watching her father take a “remedy” that would turn out to kill him. Meanwhile, her doctors are “watching” her cancer. Our narrator gazes at the out crowd on the pier, the collection she wants to be a part of. “Every day, while Billy is coming across found objects I come across found people, those who others deem marginal on the margins of the sea. I want to be part of this gang, yet I know I’m an outsider. I have a white collar job in an academic world where the clothes are clean but the politics are dirty. And I have one of those Italian coffee makers on the stove at home.”

            The eye (so often spying in these stories) makes judgments upon a woman obviously on meth, who lives in a car with her young daughter. Our narrator contemplates the call to social services, until she sees the love, protection, and tenderness the woman has for her daughter and the other out crowders have for them both. Thus, our narrator sends her own beam of watchful light out to them, until the woman starts to wave her over as a friend, saying hello, urging her closer.

            The lighthouse scans the seas, its open eye, its glare a warning, watch out, watch out, watch out, but it also is a plea: See me, see me, see me.

            The most acute instance of reciprocal gazing and recognition is in “Members Only,” where our narrator begins surveilling a new woman, Joan, who turns out to be an FBI agent near retirement, who in turn has been habitually surveilling the other cast of characters in this swiftly gentrifying south-of-San Francisco exclave. When the narrator and Joan discuss a man who leaves candy bars in the hollow of a tree, Joan admits to collecting them, recording the date and brand of each bar, then keeping them secure. When our narrator asks why Joan thinks he does this, Joan replies that it’s not her job to guess, not to find meaning in the actions, only to report.

            However, that’s not the writer’s job.

            Our narrator wonders: Are answers the same as meaning? Is understanding the same as knowing? Is recognition enough to make a connection?

            It’s no accident that our narrator, in a flash of rage, is ready to claw the eyes out of a gentrifier in a million dollar condo who calls animal control on the feral cats in the care of a local man/a member of the out crowd with Alzheimer’s, the cats being the one thing he never forgets, his devastation over their removal an ominous peephole into rapid cognitive descent. It’s cat scratch vengeance, but it also says you don’t deserve to see.

            Also, the man with Alzheimer’s was once a teacher of photography, who found the magic in a student’s accident, who said, “Look again…I can see what your disappointment won’t allow you to see.” The tenderness of recognition.

Of finally being “in with the out crowd.” It’s once the loners welcome her in that finally allows our narrator to feel at home, among her people. The ones who pass on are still remembered, in reupholstered furniture or in names scrawled in Sharpie on a bench.

            Memory as lighthouse beacon is itself an act of resilience—I’m still here, my wife and I are still in this neighborhood of misfits, who now even look out for us, in this crew of outsiders huddling together in this changing community, against battering storms, of remaining visible even in wariness, in danger, watching out for others in need, our gaze reaching out even as we stare at each other from our windows, across streets, from behind medical masks. But isn’t that a beautiful place to be, inside that glow.

Notes

Jennifer Carr frequently explores how our jobs reflect or inform our identities, and what happens when the jobs are threatened by time, automation, and politics. Her work has recently appeared in Baltimore ReviewOrigins Journal, and Panorama Journal, among others. Though she sometimes regrets not getting her union card, she loves teaching creative writing at Chapman University and spends the rest of her time as a ghostwriter. In the gaps, she is completing her novel set on the Los Angeles waterfront.

Excerpts

Techtopia: Privatized Wholeness and Public Brokenness

Carolyn Chen

What happens to society when its members worship work? Silicon Valley offers us an answer. The tech industry has created what I call Techtopia, one of its most disruptive innovations yet. Techtopia is Silicon Valley’s upgraded social “operating system”—an engineered society where people find their highest fulfillment in the utopian workplace. It promises high-skilled Americans a new kind of “wholeness.” Professionally managed, data-driven, meritocratic, and designed to scale, Techtopia gives tech workers what their families, religions, neighborhoods, unions, and civic organizations have failed to deliver in the last forty years: meaning, purpose, recognition, spirituality, and community. It is the twenty-first century American Dream.

Techtopia’s promise of fulfillment may feel distant, or even comical to most Americans. But in fact, it addresses a silent and growing absence in the American soul: an absence of belonging. Social institutions that once nurtured belonging and fulfillment no longer serve Americans well. In the last forty years, Americans have withdrawn not only from religion, but from marriage and civic associations that at once offered “wholeness.” Rates of marriage and civic participation are at an all-time low.[1] Few Americans are members of unions any longer.[2] Many people don’t even have a sense of attachment to the companies they work for because they are subcontracted labor, including many of the people who make the tech companies thrive. Even a sense of national belonging is in crisis. In 2018, a record low number of Americans reported being “extremely proud to be American.”[3] What institutions do we turn to now for belonging and purpose in life? Where do we go for “wholeness?”

The media pathologizes people who worship work, calling them “workaholics.” But what is the alternative? In American society today, there is no single institution that so faithfully aspires to meet the material, social, and spiritual needs of its members as work does for its highly skilled workers. Tech workers are worshipping work because work has become worthy of worship.

Techtopia is a cautionary tale for the rest of America. It may be making an elite group of tech workers “whole,” but it is leaving the rest of society broken. What kind of society do we become when human fulfillment is centered in the workplace? What happens to our families, religions, communities, and civil society when work satisfies too many of our needs? Silicon Valley is a bellwether of what happens when we worship work—when we surrender our time, our identities, our resources, and even our cherished traditions in service to work. It is what will happen if we don’t invest in building and sustaining social institutions and traditions that nurture community, identity, and purpose outside of work.

Photograph by Matt Gush, mattgush.com


Techtopia and the Monopolization of Human Energy

Techtopia seeks to monopolize the collective energies of communities, channeling them away from religions, families, neighborhoods, and civic associations, and into the tech workplace. To illustrate tech’s relationship to the community, imagine social institutions represented as a variety of magnets spaced out on a tabletop. And let’s say we have a bucket of metal filings that symbolize the energy (time, effort, attention) of people in the community. If we scattered the bucket of metal filings onto the table, the filings would cluster around the most powerful magnets. And even if we tried to distribute the filings evenly across the table, they would naturally migrate toward the most powerful magnets. The piles of filings show us where the energy of the community gravitates.

The metaphor of magnets and metal filings illustrates the relationship between work and human energy in Silicon Valley. Workplaces are like big and powerful magnets that attract the energy of individuals away from weaker magnets such as families, religious congregations, neighborhoods, and civic associations—institutions that we typically associate with “life” in the “work-life” binary. The magnets don’t “rob” or “extract”—words that we use to describe labor exploitation. Instead they attract the filings, monopolizing human energy by exerting an attractive rather than extractive force. By creating workplaces that meet all of life’s needs, tech companies attract the energy and devotion people would otherwise devote to other social institutions, ones that, traditionally and historically, have been sources of life fulfillment.

Consider how the “life” provisions of the workplace attracted the devotion of Sheba Nair, a tech worker and single mother. She chose to take a more senior position at a new firm even though it would mean longer hours, leaving her less time to spend with her seven-year-old daughter. Despite the longer hours, the new job had perks that made her life easier as a single mother. The company had an after-school child-care facility and a big playground that stayed open late. In the past, Sheba had struggled to pick up her daughter by six from her school’s aftercare program. Now, Sheba can work late knowing that her daughter is safe and well cared for. On top of that, the new company’s cafeteria serves dinner. Now, instead of hastily heating up a microwaved frozen dinner, Sheba and her daughter have stress-free healthy dinners at work, where she enjoys “quality time” with her daughter.

If Sheba lived in a different time or place, she would have called on other institutions and individuals to care for her daughter: the watchful eyes of neighborhood adults, a neighborhood youth center, or extended kin. But all the other families in her neighborhood are like hers. They, too, work long hours in tech and send their kids to after-school programs away from the neighborhood. Moreover, as a “tech migrant” who moved to Silicon Valley from India, Sheba has no extended kin nearby to rely on.

In Techtopia, companies replace all other potential providers of social support—families, local businesses, neighborhoods, and public services. Indeed, the company’s professional, managed care is so efficient that the services of other social institutions pale in comparison. One woman marveled at the perks of her daughter’s tech job—the meals, laundry service, wellness benefits. “I could never give her all that,” she admitted.

Companies are also stepping in where religions have failed. “I was talking to a guy at work the other day about mindfulness,” Jim Ward, the mindfulness director at one firm, recalls. “And he said, ‘I want to do more of this. Are there groups where you can get together and do this?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, it’s called church.’ [laughing] And he says, ‘Oh yeah, but I don’t want church.’” Jim delivers the all-too-serious punch line with a grin: the company’s mindfulness program is “having church at work without having church.”

People are hungry for spirituality, Jim says, but they “are turned off by religion.” Although he is an active member of a faith community outside of his company, Jim doesn’t see religious institutions meeting people’s spiritual needs in Silicon Valley. The workplace, in his view, is the answer: “I think we can create that place at work, where they can be spiritual without even knowing they are being spiritual. … They can feed that part of themselves that wants to be fed in a way that’s completely secular.”

Carrie Hawthorne, a former human resources director at a large tech firm, also sees the depth of people’s unmet needs and the company willingness to take the place of religion: “People don’t really go to church the way they used to. They’re not really rooted in their communities the way they used to be. There is this deep need for being a part of something larger than themselves, so feeling connected to the other people in the company, to the mission of the organization … it’s taking the place of some of these other institutions that we used to have.”

Most of us can agree that eating well, being physically fit, experiencing spiritual growth, and having a purpose in life are all good things. Why should we care if people fulfill these needs through their workplaces, especially if work provides them more efficiently than families, neighborhoods, and faith communities?

The problem is that tech companies increasingly operate like the most extreme of religious organizations—cults. They channel the energy of their employees inward and cut them off from things outside. As I’ve discussed, tech companies do this by hoarding so much of their employees’ time, energy, and passions that they have nothing left for anything else. And they provide for so many of their employees’ needs that tech workers can do without the public. As a result, Techtopia is corroding the collective capacity to build and sustain a common good.

Peter Kim, a tech entrepreneur in his late forties, has witnessed the breakdown of community and civic participation as tech workers took over his Silicon Valley suburb. Fifteen years ago, Peter had neighbors with diverse occupations—one neighbor was in real estate, one in finance, another a plumber, and another a small business owner. Peter would see them walking their dogs and mowing their lawns, and their children playing in the yards. The neighborhood felt to him like a community, he says. There was a sense of mutual concern for each other and the neighborhood as a whole. They belonged to the neighborhood. The previous owner of Peter’s house used to run a day-care center from the home, drawing in many of the children and families from the neighborhood. When issues arose, they’d organize community meetings and post flyers around the neighborhood. Peter, who is now running for elected office in his city, credits his start in city politics to the activism of this earlier neighborhood. If it weren’t for those neighbors, he believes, he wouldn’t be running for political office today.

Today, he says, “a lot of those people are gone.” Many moved because of the rising cost of living. Others sold their homes at unthinkable profits and retired early somewhere else. What do his neighbors do for a living now? Peter goes down the list: “software engineer, software engineer, software engineer.” None of them, in his view, care about the neighborhood. They live there, but there’s no sense of belonging. The town was closing small neighborhood parks to cut costs, he complained. That was something his old neighbors would have fought. But now, his neighbors don’t do anything. I asked him why engineers are different. “They’re busy,” he answered. Peter rarely sees his neighbors anymore. They’re not around enough to see the town notices about the impending shut-down of their neighborhood park. And even if they see the notices, they don’t seem to care. “They don’t go to the park, so it just disappears,” Peter explained.

Peter’s story made me think of Sheba. What if Sheba had lived in Peter’s old neighborhood when it was rich with social relations? Sheba and her daughter’s life might have been different. Her daughter might have attended a child-care center run out of a neighbor’s house, instead of the company program. The child would have been able to walk to the neighborhood park instead of relying on her mother to drive her to the company playground. Between the neighbors, whose work schedules were different from Sheba’s, there would usually have been some adult to keep an eye on the kids at the park. Her daughter’s playmates would have been neighborhood children with parents from different walks of life—as realtors, small business owners, and plumbers—and not just the children of other tech workers. The swing set and the monkey bars in the neighborhood park wouldn’t be as new and flashy as the ones at Sheba’s company, but one could imagine such a community fighting the city tooth and nail if it tried to take the park away from them.[4]

Richard Grant, a longtime Protestant minister in Silicon Valley, notices that church participation has declined as tech has grown. People, he says, now live at “a breathless pace.” Thirty years ago, the typical member of his church attended both Sunday service and Sunday school most weeks. Today, the average member of his church attends only Sunday service once a month. This has caused a “volunteer challenge” in his church. Time and energy that people used to devote to church is now going to work.

In Techtopia, people don’t belong to neighborhoods, churches, or cities. They belong to work.[5] Instead of building friendships, trust, and goodwill within their communities, they develop the social capital of their companies.

Silicon Valley shows what happens when we worship work—when we surrender our time, our identities, our resources, and even our cherished traditions in service to work. How, then, can we not worship work? How do we break the theocracy of work?

“In the day-to-day trenches of adult life,” the late writer David Foster Wallace observed, “there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.”[6] We stop worshipping work, Wallace suggests, by choosing to worship something else. But we cannot do it alone, in the private sanctuary of our personal prayers and devotions. Since worshipping work is a social enterprise, choosing not to worship work must also be a collective endeavor. We can do this by intentionally building shared places of worship, fulfillment, and belonging that attract our time, energy, and devotion. These are our families, neighborhoods, clubs, and civic associations, as well as our faith communities. We need to recharge these “magnets” that have grown weak. Contrary to what time management pundits tell us, we do this by letting these magnets attract more and not less of our time, energy, and passion. This is not a call to end work; it’s a call to energize non-workplaces. It’s an invitation to reflect on how we as a society expend our collective energy. It’s an appeal to redistribute our devotion into the institutions that we want to shape our desires and fulfill us. And it’s a proposition to invest in institutions that share resources equitably across society.

Among our civic institutions, religions are especially well positioned to respond to the challenges of our time. Religion is one of the last spheres of social life to offer cohesive and communal traditions that resist marketized forms of logic and exchange. Unfortunately, most organized religions in the United States today seem to regard the worship of work not as a problem to change, but rather as something to accommodate. In places like Silicon Valley, religion has become a therapeutic salve to heal the inner self in a work-obsessed world. Religions as varied as Buddhism and evangelical Christianity offer “personal freedom” and “personal salvation” but leave the worship of work intact.

Religions can do much more, of course. Their liturgies, practices, and teachings reorient the human heart, mind, and body away from the world of work and markets. Religious traditions can offer a powerful and distinct set of ethics, communities, and rituals to counter the morally bereft religion of work. They can teach virtues such as justice, stewardship, kinship, and compassion, qualities that help us determine how, why, and when to work; how and what to produce; and what to do with the profits of our work. Religion can show us that values such as efficiency, productivity, and growth are means and not ends in themselves. Now more than ever, we need the prophetic voices of our religious traditions and communities to help us restore a collective wholeness.

As we enter the third year of the pandemic, the future of work is uncertain for Silicon Valley and the rest of the world. Most tech workers in Silicon Valley work from home. They no longer live their lives at work. Instead, work now lives with them at home. It’s become the newest family member and has settled in, like a newborn, requiring constant attention and devotion.

There’s no telling how work will change for Silicon Valley tech workers and other high-skilled professionals after the pandemic. Some companies, such as Twitter, claim that they are going completely remote for good. Others are so invested in their infrastructures and cultures that they’ll want to return to the way things were. But once we reopen our workplaces, neighborhoods, churches, temples, and gyms, we will have to learn to be with one another again. We will have to re-create our communities. What will we do? The philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre writes that our actions and ethics emerge from our sense of belonging: “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story or stories do I find myself a part?’”[7] To whom and to what will we choose to belong? What will we choose to worship?



Notes

*All photographs by Matt Gush, mattgush.com.

[1] Although voter participation in the 2020 presidential election was at an all-time high, general rates of civic participation have trended downward for the past fifty years. See Theda Skocpol, Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2003); Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000); Robert D. Putnam with Shaylyn Romney Garrett, The Upswing: How America Came Together a Century Ago and How We Can Do It Again (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2020). For marriage rates, see Sally C. Curtin and Paul D. Sutton, “Marriage Rates in the United States, 1900–2018,” National Center for Health Statistics E-Stat, April 29, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/hestat/marriage_rate_2018/marriage_rate_2018.htm.

[2] Putnam, Upswing, 51.

[3] Jeffrey Jones, “In U.S., Record-Low 47% Extremely Proud to Be Americans,” Gallup News, July 2, 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/236420/record-low-extremely-proud-americans.aspx.

[4] To be sure, Silicon Valley was never as community oriented as its longtime residents remember it. It promoted land-intensive, spread-out tract housing long before Google showed up, and it relentlessly segregated Black and Latinx residents away from the park-rich neighborhoods people like Peter rightly cherished. But the tech companies’ appetite for human energy has played a crucial role in the unravelling of civil society, whose consequences are only just beginning to be felt. For the history of suburbanization and racial segregation in Northern California, see Robert O. Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005).

[5] Economist Paul Collier makes a similar argument to explain the rise of nationalism and the polarization between the working class and the highly skilled in Western democracies. In the last fifty years, the highly skilled have switched their identity from nation to work because work best “maximizes their esteem,” he claims. The working class that got left behind in the new economy, on the other hand, turned to nationalism. Paul Collier, The Future of Capitalism: Facing the New Anxieties (Great Britain: Penguin Random House UK, 2018), 52.

[6] David Foster Wallace, This Is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life (New York: Little, Brown, 2009), 7.

[7] Alasdair C. MacIntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 1984), 250.

Carolyn Chen (www.carolynchen.org) is a sociologist and associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of Getting Saved in America (Princeton), coeditor with Russell Jeung of Sustaining Faith Traditions and the author of the new book, Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley (Princeton), from which the above article is excerpted.

Matt Gush (www.mattgush.com) is a photographic journalist based in Southern California, whose work has been collected by National Geographic, featured by The New York Times, and is represented by Getty Images.

Excerpts

Fútbol in the Park: Immigrants, Soccer, and the Creation of Social Ties

David Trouille

Working Connections

One afternoon about two years into my research at Mar Vista, I joined a group of men sitting at picnic tables by the soccer field. Most of them had just finished playing soccer in the midday games. As I walked over, Mi Chavo hopped in Moncho’s truck. As I suspected, he was off to buy beer, which Polo revealed by accusing me of timing my arrival to avoid contributing money. I smiled and responded that he could count on “mis dos pesitos” (my two dollars) for the next beer run. Polo shook his head and replied, “Otro güey que no trabaja.” (Another guy who doesn’t work.)

Even two years after the economic recession of 2008, good employment opportunities remained scarce for many of the men. That afternoon, Polo was complaining about an overbearing supervisor and claimed he was prepared to quit if he persisted with his “mamadas” (bullshit). When someone questioned his seriousness, Polo replied that he could find work at another restaurant “en dos toques” (in the blink of an eye). Araña told Polo he should be thankful he had a job, as it had been over a month since he himself had laid tile. Valderrama, a general handyman, commented that there was plenty of work in construction so long as you were willing to work “por pesos” (for cheap). Barba challenged these familiar gripes: “Hay jale [there is work], but Araña doesn’t want to work. He prefers to drink for free in the park.” Araña fired back by pointing out the precariousness of Barba’s own situation, who—despite working full-time at a supermarket— was sleeping in his “pinche combi” (fucking van).

As the men talked, Titi remained unusually silent and morose. I knew from previous conversations that he had been struggling to find steady work as a painter. He was trying to set out on his own, rather than work for his brother or other contractors. However, going solo was proving more difficult than he had imagined, despite his years of experience. His expression warmed with the buzzing of his cell phone resting expectantly on the concrete table. He seemed even more pleased when he recognized the number of the incoming call.

Titi stood up and answered the phone in English: “Hello.” With one hand on the picnic table, he listened to the voice on the other line and replied: “No problem! Yes, yes. Okay, goodbye.” As soon as he hung up, he motioned to Mi Chavo and spoke in his native Spanish: “Let’s go, I’ve got to see un cliente.” Polo interjected: “Don’t go, Mi Chavo! He was just talking to his vieja [old lady],” implying that his exaggerated talk in English was a ruse to impress the men. Titi ignored Polo’s jab, but when Araña asked him where he was headed, he told him to mind his own business. Titi added that he didn’t want any “drunks” on his crew, which everyone understood to be a clear crack at Araña, who was always looking for work as a hired hand. As the two men walked toward Titi’s van stocked ready with painting supplies, Araña yelled out: “Cuidado [careful], Mi Chavo”—a face-saving and not-so-subtle warning for the “ayudante” (helper). Polo interjected with his own jibe at the departing duo: “Come back with beer!” On cue, Titi shot back: “Busquen trabajo, culeros.” (Look for work, assholes.)

Kathy and Zurdo

*

The world of work was never far removed from the park. Even though many men claimed to come there to escape their workaday lives, intersections between work and play abounded. Work was a frequent topic of conversation, during which the men often complained about problems with bosses or clients and about a general lack of opportunities. Yet as they socialized, they also talked shop and vaunted their achievements and adventures at work. The steady flow of people to and from jobs and phone calls from employers made work feel ever present, especially since cell phones allowed the men to remain “on call” while at the park. Men arriving in clothing stained with dirt and paint as well as vehicles stocked with tools and supplies identified them as workers, as did nicknames like Carwash, Locksmith, Mata Rata (exterminator), and Pisa Muerto (morgue attendant) and iconic park insults like “go heat up the soup” or “go paint toilets.” In any case, most of the men were familiar with their peers’ employment schedules that kept them on the move. Fixing cars or equipment in the parking lot and planning projects at the picnic tables were other ways the workplace flowed into the park. Moreover, as many of the men worked nearby, the park provided a convenient pit stop or respectable waiting post between jobs. But long stretches in the park could signal a lack of employment—a humiliation exacerbated by the recurring taunt to “look for work.”

However, these indicators of employment (or lack thereof) only dimly reflect the close interconnections between park life and the men’s work lives. What the men created and sustained in the park facilitated the development of relationships and reputations that spilled over into the men’s labor. They came to play and unwind, but found that the park provided a vital space to network and generate employment opportunities. Many of the men who met in the park worked together, referred each other for jobs, and exchanged work-related information and resources. Most of these concerned low-paying jobs in restaurants, construction, gardening, and cleaning—positions filled with fellow Latino immigrants. The park also became a place for many of the men to combat the isolation and drudgery of their work, giving them a unique space to construct and revel in meaningful interactions and rewarding relationships.

This chapter explores the men’s work lives and their connections to the park and beyond. I focus primarily on labor in private homes, in which I was able to participate and observe projects firsthand, in contrast to other employment sectors (such as restaurant work) that tended to be off-limits and knowable only through interviews. By shadowing the men at work, I saw how social relationships and informal arrangements organized their labor. I also grew to appreciate how an increasingly vital sector of the contemporary economy was filled by immigrant labor in private homes, where—in contrast to the park—the men and other workers like them were welcomed and depended upon.

Immigrant Labor

In Los Angeles and many other parts of the country, certain tasks historically carried out by middle-class and some wealthier homeowners—tasks such as painting, housecleaning, gardening, and childcare—are increasingly done by hired help. Immigrants commonly do this work and are often employed “off the books.” Today private homes, rather than factories, serve as major economic points of entry for new immigrants.

This shift in hiring practices is well documented in the research on domestic workers. Less well understood are the types of paid services provided by the men from the park, such as small-scale construction, painting, and gardening jobs. Yet, as with nannies, their work is critical in keeping the culture and economy of Los Angeles afloat. Indeed, in many communities, immigrant labor has become indispensable to the maintenance of smoothly running households and affluent lifestyles. Today’s “hourglass economy” generates—and depends on—low-paying jobs, including in restaurants, another major source of employment at the park.

Despite the ubiquity of immigrant labor in Los Angeles, prospective workers and their clients face many challenges in this informal economy. Like any client, homeowners seek to maximize quality and minimize costs, both economic and social. Whereas companies in the formal economy— like painting firms, for example—are publicly accessible and provide institutionalized credibility and legal recourse, they are often much more expensive than off-the-record workers due to greater overhead, licensing fees, insurance costs, and mandated wages and benefits. These requirements also make them less flexible and less adaptable to shifting economic conditions and to the evolving needs of clients.

Anonymous day laborers present different challenges. While usually cheaper, they offer few safeguards to clients if the work goes badly. Moreover, the prospect of selecting workers at a formal or informal hiring center and bringing them in and around one’s home can prove daunting for even the most adventurous homeowner. Like day laborers themselves, clients face fears and uncertainties interacting with strangers in an unregulated labor market, be it over theft, negligence, or other forms of abuse. In fact, studies of day-labor sites show how workers and employers try to transcend the competition and anonymity of these sites by establishing more familiar and permanent employment relationships.

While formal companies and day laborers can and do meet homeowner needs, the men served a more intermediary position in the labor market: workers who neither work in the formal economy nor deal with clients as complete strangers. They avoided the heavy costs of regulated companies, as well as the risks of anonymity. However, these work arrangements did not develop automatically or without effort. For in contrast to friendships formed in the park, the relationships between these workers and employers involved people separated by considerable social distance played out within the physical proximity and private spaces of clients’ homes. The site of production was also the place of consumption, raising the stakes and providing leverage for both parties.

The Work

During the final three years of my primary fieldwork, I observed fourteen men from the park at work. On roughly half of these jobs, “ayudantes” (paid helpers) from the park assisted. In total, I observed thirty-four jobs over a three-year period. In twenty-five of these projects, a range of new tasks or “extras” were added to the original labor agreement as the work progressed. Several of these expanded jobs lasted over a month, although most projects were completed in under two weeks.

The work primarily involved maintenance and home-improvement jobs, including construction, painting, cleaning, gardening, and renovation projects. The size and format ranged from small-scale or repeat tasks (such as fixing a fence or repainting a bedroom) to long-term arrangements (such as weekly gardening or pool maintenance) to large-scale projects (like remodeling a kitchen or repainting an entire home). In many cases, the men had worked for clients for several years, even decades, although I observed initial and onetime encounters as well. Work relationships often began with small, short-term tasks, but then developed over time into more substantial, long-term arrangements.

I primarily shadowed the men at work in West Los Angeles. Occasionally, they serviced multimillion-dollar homes in the most exclusive sections, such as Beverly Hills, Brentwood, and Malibu. But more typically they worked for middle- and upper-middle-class white homeowners in and around Santa Monica, Venice, Pacific Palisades, and Culver City. As I drove around with the men, this area became a monument of sorts to their professional careers as they pointed out various homes they had worked in over the years—some within a few blocks of the park.

In addition to location, the jobs shared several other characteristics, notably the fact that the men generally worked directly for the homeowner, rather than for a third party, such as a contractor or property manager. The men described this job arrangement as “por mi cuenta” (on my own). Many of the men had experience working for compañías or as ayudantes but preferred working independently. Although this work could be sporadic and uncertain, they found it more lucrative and enjoyed the freedom and flexibility that came with being self-employed. However, working on their own did require them to constantly look for new jobs—what sociologist Mary Romero referred to as “finding casas” in her study of domestic workers. Unlike their friends employed in restaurants, they did not work for a salary on a regular schedule.

Chango’s career arc followed a familiar path from apprentice to entrepreneur. He started painting with his father, who taught Chango the trade over weekends and summers. Seeking greater independence and new experiences after finishing high school, Chango began working for other contractors and spent over a year with a commercial painting firm. But by his late twenties and with a growing family at home, he was anxious to set out on his own. Feeling confident in his skills and start-up funds, he embarked on this new chapter in his professional life. By the time I met him in his early thirties, Chango was well established as an independent painter, moving from one casa to the next.

Like other independent contractors, Chango sometimes needed to hire additional workers. These ayudantes were almost always people he knew, rather than anonymous workers encountered on the street. The contractors I met at the park often employed the same helpers, most of whom they knew from Mar Vista. Seven ayudantes from the park accompanied the men on jobs I observed, and two helpers not associated with the park were hired as well. Like Chango, most men had begun their careers as ayudantes, working as apprentices under a more seasoned professional. Occasionally, men who typically worked on their own would work as helpers. The vast majority of these shifting arrangements and relationships were tied to the park.

The work was generally “informal” in that it was not regulated by or reported to the government. Usually the parties relied on verbal agreements and cash payments, although contracts were sometimes produced and services paid with personal checks. Although federal and state regulations do apply to this type of work, I never sensed that either party was aware of or concerned with these guidelines. Neither party secured permits for any of the projects I observed, although the men acknowledged that some jobs did require formal approval. In some cases, they took special efforts to avoid inspection; in other cases, they claimed to have lost out on jobs because they were unable to secure a permit or to meet other licensing or insurance requirements. I never observed any clients openly inquiring about the men’s legal status when negotiating the fee or scope of work.

How the men secured work varied, but these jobs almost always involved some sort of referral or recommendation either from a client or a fellow worker. Few of the men actively solicited work from strangers through business cards, advertisements, or employment agencies. The helpers generally worked for someone they knew as well, rather than seeking work at day-laborer centers. Clients, in turn, typically hired someone they knew or recommended either by friends, neighbors, or colleagues or by people they had employed for other jobs.

Friends and Family

Taking Titi as a paradigmatic case, we see how a variety of personal ties could generate work opportunities. It was his mother-in-law’s recommendation that led to the phone call he received in the opening vignette. She recommended Titi to paint the inside of a condominium apartment she had cleaned for over twenty years. Another referral came to Titi through a former soccer teammate, who recommended him for a job painting two bedrooms in a home where he was installing new windows. And Motor— another friend from the park—urged his client to hire Titi to paint a kitchen he was in the process of remodeling. In all three cases, the recommendations led to Titi securing the job.

Titi’s work history reveals the value of ties to people who work in private homes. Indeed, the more people the men knew with such clients, the greater the potential for referrals. As working-class Latino immigrants, their social circle tended to include people who did similar “brown-collar” work, although not all networks were of equal value. Although the men drew referrals from other parts of their lives, the park became a key networking site, especially because it brought together men who did similar work.

Chances for referrals were also high because of the various jobs that unfold in the life of a home, as well as the need for regular maintenance. Along with shifting cultural expectations, the pressures of a competitive real-estate market produce a steady supply of work as well. Upper-class clients regularly asked their working-class hires for recommendations for maintaining their homes. As the clients suspected, the men almost always knew someone who could do the work, if they did not offer themselves as candidates for the job. Moreover, they could usually count on the work being done well at low cost, which is what drew them to this intermediary sector of the labor market in the first place.

For example, as Titi was painting a wall above a fireplace, his client asked him if he knew someone who could install a new gas fixture, adding that she was tired of not having a working fireplace. Titi replied that he did, although he admitted to me that at the time he wasn’t sure who could do the job. But the following week, he returned with Raul, a plumber he knew from the park, and the two men installed a new unit, splitting the earnings in half. The client later explained that she asked Titi about the fireplace because she was worried that a “company” would be too expensive. She added that she didn’t want to deal with “all the hassle” of finding someone and negotiating the terms by herself. In fact, she told Titi to “take care of it” and did not ask him how much it would cost. To her relief, Titi knew someone who could do the job at an affordable rate.

Referrals were usually made in response to client requests, but were also offered in anticipation of their service needs. Workers often made suggestions—and subsequent referrals—for work that might be less notice- able to the client. For example, Valderrama mentioned that his brother- in-law, a gardener, frequently brought issues (such as a rotting fence or a cracked wall) to the attention of his clients. Similarly, when Titi noticed that a client’s gutter was leaking, he told him he knew someone who could repair it. Talking with me later, the homeowner expressed gratitude for having had the problem identified and fixed. When I asked him what he would have done without the recommendation, he explained: “I’m sure I would have found someone to take care of it, but it would have been a pain and taken a while.” He later joked: “I probably wouldn’t even have noticed it, like a lot of things around this house.” Indeed, I often saw men working on a job recommend a friend or relative to fix problems the homeowner had put off handling or hadn’t even noticed.

However, a referral did not guarantee employment. I observed several men who missed out on jobs, despite having received a strong recommendation, usually due to scheduling conflicts or disagreements over fees. The referral merely opened up the possibility of work by bringing the two parties together. Yet hiring through word of mouth offered the advantage of lessening the uncertainty that came with anonymity and the men’s unregulated status. Not only do people tend to trust people they know—which is why they ask for recommendations in the first place—they also recognize that the recommender’s reputation is on the line, which is especially important if future work is at stake. The stakes of the referral became apparent when clients talked fondly of the recommender when negotiating a new hire. For example, meeting Titi for the first time, his client gushed about how much she loved his mother-in-law, Gladys, who cleaned for her, and how happy she was to help out her family. The client later told me in confidence that she trusted Gladys’s judgment, but also knew she would “keep an eye on” her son-in-law. After the job was completed to her satisfaction, she presumably expected Titi—who by then had earned her trust—to serve the same role in supervising Raul on the fireplace project. As in other workplaces, the referral was leveraged as a source both of information and control.15

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Referrals were rarely made strictly for benevolent reasons. The men making the referral expected to be compensated, although the form of compensation varied. In some cases, a cash payment was offered. For example, Locksmith usually gave around ten dollars to doormen he knew at several Santa Monica high-rises when they referred him to residents locked out of their apartments. In another case, Pow Wow gave Barba fifty dollars for a job he helped him win. When I asked Barba what would have happened if Pow Wow had not paid him, he replied: “Nothing, I just wouldn’t have recommended him anymore.” As Barba was a sociable man who mingled in different social circles, Pow Wow would have lost a valuable contact. In this way, Barba underlined the importance of maintaining relationships with well-connected people.

Reciprocity was more typically achieved through subsequent referrals rather than through cash payments. The prospect of future employment was what most motivated the men to recommend others: “Hoy por ti, mañana por mí.” (Today for you, tomorrow for me.) Valderrama explained his decision to refer fellow workers in these terms: “If I help someone [get jobs], they’ll help me out later with work.” This form of exchange was most common among those whose work lent itself to helping others. For example, Beto (a carpenter), Chicas (an electrician), and Caballo (a plumber)—all friends from the park—frequently referred each other to clients, either in the course of doing a job or when contacted by a client. Like the exchanges and associated obligations built around beer drinking at the park, the trading of job referrals indebted the men to each other and deepened their relationships. Generally, there was a double bonus in these exchanges since the referral benefited their friends and employers, thereby increasing their status and future prospects with both parties. Understandably, the men were excited when their friends obtained work as it could lead to opportunities for them. For example, when I told Martín that Titi had been contacted for a new painting project, he replied: “Ojalá [hopefully] he gets it,” knowing this could mean work for him as a helper.

Caballo and Son

Referrals did not go smoothly every time. There was always a delicate balance between helping out a friend and making sure that person would do a good job; indeed, even a skilled worker could behave inappropriately, showing up late or offending the homeowner in other ways. A bad referral could have disastrous consequences for everyone involved, as illustrated by a falling out between Titi and Motor over a job gone sour:

As Titi was repainting a home, the client asked him if he knew someone who could install new kitchen cabinets. Titi recommended Motor, having worked with him before on a similar job. Recently, the two men had been socializing more often after Titi had begun playing for the soccer team Motor coached. Motor agreed to take on the job, happy to have found work after a brief stretch of inactivity.

The client purchased the cabinets, and Motor went to work installing them. The two men rarely interacted because instructions were passed through Titi. When Motor finished, the client said his wife was unhappy with how they looked. She wanted them positioned differently. He claimed that Motor had not followed his instructions and that he would not pay him until the cabinets were moved. Titi relayed the news to Motor, who was already growing anxious about being paid for three days of work. Motor pushed back, arguing that he did exactly what Titi said the client had requested. He refused to move the cabinets until he was paid for the work he had already done. In the meantime, unbeknownst to Titi, the client found someone else to do the job, and Motor was never paid.

Despite making this “bad” referral, Titi was nevertheless fortunate to avoid the worst-case scenario in which both workers were fired. Instead, as more typically happened in these cases, the client continued to hire the first one for work—as he had already proven himself—but no longer asked for his suggestions.

Consequently, with fewer opportunities to recommend people, Titi’s own chances of receiving referrals declined. As the men depended on the exchange of referrals, it was therefore in their best interest to offer reliable recommendations to their clients, at least to those with whom they wished to remain in good standing. Similarly, those referred were under pressure to perform well if they hoped to be recommended again for jobs in the future. Like their clients, the men used the prospect of future referrals as a means to motivate their protégés and to keep them in line. For example, Titi told Motor that there would likely be much more work with the client to whom he was recommending him “si termina bien” (if it ends well). Yet the job, as we learned, did not go well, after which Titi chided Motor: “You lost a lot of work with that guy!”

At the same time, there was sometimes trepidation about introducing a potential competitor to a client. Indeed, many of the men were adept at different home-improvement tasks or at least professed to be. For example, Titi (a painter) preferred to recommend Motor for carpentry jobs, rather than Valderrama, because the latter was also a skilled painter. By contrast, Titi claimed that Chango no longer employed him on his painting crew because he was worried Titi would “steal his clients.” Chango laughed when I asked him if this was really the case, but he did not dispute Titi’s allegation. While these two men remained friends, I knew of several relationships that soured due to pilfered work. So it was hardly surprising that the men were very careful in choosing whom they recommended to their clients.

Valderrama and Barba

Building Reputations at the Park

The park represented a key social setting for the men to sort out many of these concerns. As the opening vignette shows, the men often talked about their work as they socialized. Through these stories, the men learned about each other as workers—information they later used to make decisions about whom to hire or recommend. As expected, tales of referrals or hiring arrangements gone bad garnered special attention. For example, it took several years for Coloccini to restore his reputation after Barba told everyone at the park he bungled a job he had helped him secure. Barba later told me he was angry with Coloccini because the client—who owned several apartment buildings—no longer asked him to recommend workers, thereby depriving him of fees for referrals and also reducing opportunities for recommendations for himself from those he might otherwise have recommended. Similarly, after Secada was caught by a client taking a shower in her home, Araña, who had hired him, was immediately fired. Subsequently, many men refused to employ Secada as a helper. But culpability was not always clear or uncontested. For example, Secada claimed that Araña made up the shower story to avoid paying him. Similarly, following the kitchen cabinet debacle, outsiders disagreed over who was at fault; some felt that Titi was responsible for the miscommunications with the client and therefore should have paid Motor out of pocket for his work.

As these cases suggest, workers’ reputations were an important and guarded source of currency at the park. In lieu of firsthand knowledge, the men’s performance and behavior on the job were the grounds on which referrals or hires were based. It is therefore hardly surprising that the men aggressively promoted and protected their standing as workers. This meant making sure others knew they were working, which was always in doubt when they were at the park. The men communicated this verbally, but also by arriving in vehicles stocked with supplies and in clothing stained with dirt or paint. When possible, the men also took their breaks at the park. Phone calls with clients, especially when conducted in English, were another way to signal active work lives. Although these moves were not necessarily deliberate, their implication was brought into focus when others joked that these phone calls were only simulations of the real thing, as Polo did when mocking Titi’s phone conversation recounted at the opening of the chapter.

Work histories took on a more forceful and strategic tone in the men’s storytelling. As they socialized, they were quick to publicize successful jobs and wealthy clients—a strategy evident in the following exchange:

It was late afternoon on a Tuesday when Valderrama pulled into the parking lot. Manuel, his regular helper, was sitting in the passenger’s seat. Valderrama hopped out of his truck and walked straight over to the group of men I was sitting with by the picnic tables. He was wearing jeans, boots, and a flannel shirt, all of which looked dusty from a hard day’s work. Valderrama said hello and exchanged handshakes with most of the men. He then sat down and exhaled deeply as he stretched out his arms and legs. He seemed relieved to be sitting down.

After surveying the scene, Valderrama blurted out to no one in particular: “What a day!” Filling the silence, he reached out to Martín, a fellow construction worker: “Hey, Martín, remember that job in Brentwood by the school? I’m working over there. We’re fixing a stone wall by the entrance.” Sensing he had Martín’s attention, he continued: “Puros millonarios [nothing but millionaires] over there. They have a pool, security guard, de todo [everything]! But the owner wants it exact. He’s European.” Gaining momentum, he turned to another colleague in the business: “Motor, you should see the wall, pura calidad [top quality].” Martín and Motor nodded their heads in approval, but the latter then cautioned: “Don’t forget to finish it,” alluding to a well-known situation from a few years earlier when Valderrama failed to complete a job he was working on with Motor. Valderrama laughed and responded: “We’re almost done. We could have finished today, but there’s no rush. Hopefully there’s more work.”

As with Valderrama, the stories the men shared about their work tended to involve bigger jobs and more affluent clients. Like their friends who worked in restaurants, the men felt better about serving important people, so they had a personal interest in elevating the status of the people for whom they worked. They tried to gain status by association, not only to boost their self-worth, but also as a way to promote their skills. In borrowing prestige from their clients, they built themselves up as prestigious workers and therefore as worthy of being recommended by their peers.

But like much that was said at the park, these statements tended to be met with scrutiny and suspicion. For example, several men questioned Titi’s claims about the new job mentioned in the opening section and joked that he had actually been hired to have sex with the elderly client. Workers relied on their powers of persuasion, but also called on companions to corroborate their statements. With most of the men working alone or in pairs in isolated homes, stories were a key way to publicize their work experience in order to increase their chance of being hired or recommended for other jobs. As Valderrama did with Manuel, the men often engaged me in conversation about their work when socializing with the other men, asking me to tell the others about the fanciness of the home or the particularities of a client. I suspect that one of the reasons the men were willing to take me along to their jobs was in order to use me as a more neutral source of corroboration.

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In addition to stories about the men’s work, park life—as we’ve learned— provided ample opportunity to evaluate their character in ways that affected the men’s hiring practices and referrals. For example, Beavis felt that he was denied work as an ayudante because “I get into too many fights.” Several men told me that they did not hire or recommend one man for jobs because they had seen or heard about him stealing at the park. Several men were excluded from employment deals because of their heavy drinking, for fears that they would show up drunk or not at all. Others were shunned because of their failure to adequately reciprocate in dealings with their peers. For example, when I asked Pachanga why he refused to work for a notorious freeloader at the park, he replied: “How am I going to work for him? He never puts in money for beer!” Sensing that I did not understand the connection, he clarified: “If he doesn’t pay here, he’s not going to pay there!” Park interactions also put pressure on workers to behave on the job, as Robert explained when questioning rumors claiming that a park regular failed to pay his assistants: “How are you not going to pay someone you see at the park every day?”

By contrast, men who handled themselves well at the park—whether on the soccer field or drinking beer together—were more likely to be considered for jobs. For although they came to have fun, they recognized the opportunities that could arise from interactions with a large group of men in similar lines of work. Most men also preferred to work with friends since this helped pass the time, despite the occasional complications. Like an invitation to drink a beer together, hiring or recommending someone for a job solidified and deepened relationships at the park. For example, when I commented to Roberto during a return visit to L.A. that Polo and Motor seemed to be spending a lot more time together at the park, he responded: “It’s because Polo’s working with Motor now,” the former having decided to take a break from decades in the restaurant industry. As in this case and many others, bonds built at the park and on the job became mutually reinforcing and facilitated a range of employment opportunities.

Referrals from Clients and Their Circle of Friends and Neighbors

Referrals also came from the men’s existing clients, who represented another key means of networking. Often these recommendations were requested by clients’ friends or neighbors who needed people to service their home, but had yet to find qualified and trustworthy workers to do the job. For example, several clients explained to me that their friends were always looking for “good help.” In the crowded and largely unregulated informal labor market, finding “good help” could be difficult, which is what made recommendations so valuable. A referral based on firsthand experience offered them assurances that the job would be done well. It also provided information about cost, another source of uncertainty. Moreover, in contrast to recommendations for restaurants or movies, the stakes were high, as one client emphasized as she negotiated with a prospective hire: “This is my home. I live here and need the work to be done correctly.” A referral from a trusted adviser helped allay these concerns.

All fourteen of the men I followed said they received work through client referrals. For example, the painting job Titi secured through his mother-in-law resulted in the client referring him to three of her friends, two of whom ended up hiring him. She even invited friends to her home to meet Titi and to see his work. Months later, one of these new clients told me that she was “so happy” to have met Titi because “he’s done such a good job” painting her apartment. I observed a similar development with Chango. A client invited two of his friends to meet him and to inspect the finished job. Chango ended up painting their homes, which expanded his clientele and earnings.

Several of the men pointed to a particular client who had been especially helpful in introducing them to new clients. For example, Chango attributed his heavy workload to referrals from a longtime client who owned a paint store and who recommended him to many of her customers. Similarly, Motor secured a series of jobs in an apartment complex after doing work for someone he met playing soccer at the park who recommended him to his neighbors. A particularly striking example of networking through clients concerns Araña, who obtained a number of jobs through members of an extended family he had worked for over the previous two decades. The depth of his connections to that family became clear when I observed him installing kitchen tiles in the home of a man Araña had known as a child when he was working for his parents.

The men’s affluent, primarily White clients dwelt in very different social circles from them and consequently had access to a wider range of people outside the men’s networks. By putting the men in contact with other homeowners, these “weak ties” expanded the men’s opportunities. This was especially true of the better-connected and more motivated clients. These links were crucial, given that these clients had only so much work to do and money to invest in their own homes.

The men also told me stories about clients trying to poach them when they were working as ayudantes, just as their colleagues suspected. For example, Pasmado told me about a client who surreptitiously asked for his phone number as he discussed a future job. The men believed clients did this because they assumed that so-called helpers would be less expensive than their bosses. They also had the comfort of having seen the men at work in their home. Notwithstanding the potential for greater earnings and autonomy, the men said they were careful about sharing their contact information because allegations of job poaching could tarnish their relationships and reputation, as previously explained. Despite these risks, several men told me that they developed more independent relationships with clients after initially meeting them as hired hands. Like Valderrama, most of the men got their start as ayudantes, and this was one way to strike out on their own. Clients’ underhanded moves also show the lengths to which they would go to secure cheap and dependable labor for themselves and their friends. Yet at the same time, they expanded the men’s reach into untapped networks.

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The visibility of the men and their work proved to be another valuable source of referrals. The fact that the homeowners’ friends and neighbors saw the men on the job gave prospective clients an opportunity to observe and interact with them. As with referrals from employees and friends, these interactions lessened some of the costs and uncertainties involved in the hiring process. Instead of choosing a stranger through advertisements or at a day-laborer center, the chance to talk with the men and observe them at work gave a prospective client confidence that the job would be done well for a reasonable price.

Over the course of my research, I observed sixteen neighbors approach the men about potential jobs in their homes. Clients usually spoke directly about the work, but sometimes began with small talk, without making specific reference to a job. The men quickly realized that the neighbors were “feeling them out,” which explains why they never ignored or dismissed these onlookers, no matter how distracting or strange these encounters may have seemed. Here’s an example of one such encounter:

As Güero—a gardener—was packing up his equipment, a white man in his mid-forties walked by with his dog. The man stopped and stared at Güero for a bit and then blurted out: “Muy caliente” (very hot) in accented Spanish. Güero smiled and replied, “Sí,” as he returned to his work under the scorching sun. The man then asked Güero in English if he had just worked at the home in front of which he was parked. Güero answered yes and set down the hedge trimmer he was in the process of repairing. The man took this opening to explain that he was looking for someone to do his yardwork. Güero nodded and responded, “Okay.” Güero went into his truck for a piece of paper to write down his given name (Francisco) and phone number. He handed it over to the man, who was being pulled away by his dog. As he departed, he shouted out: “We’ll talk later.”

While prospective clients usually approached the men on the edges of the work site, it was not uncommon for people to enter their neighbor’s home to observe the work firsthand and speak with the men, even when the homeowner was not around. As with encounters on the street, the men did not appear startled or at all bothered by these intrusions, perhaps be- cause the intruders were generally White and appeared to live in the area.

All the men I followed said that they had independently secured work with a client’s neighbor or with someone simply passing by the client’s home. They admitted that not all conversations led to work; but, well aware of the rewards their visibility could bring, they appreciated the potential of these interactions. As Güero explained, “My work is my best advertisement.” It was therefore not surprising that the men seemed to spend considerable time and energy perfecting sections of their work visible to passersby, especially in walkable neighborhoods. For example, when I asked Motor why he was redoing a part of a fence the client would not be able to see, he replied with a wink: “Para los vecinos” (for the neighbors), which he later confirmed was in the hope of attracting new business. For the same reason, the men rarely changed out of work clothes stained with paint or dirt, as they recognized this as another way of advertising their skills. Thus, rather than lower the visibility associated with their status as immigrant workers, the men tried to heighten it by lingering near the job site and calling attention to the quality of their work.

Not all jobs provided the same visibility or opportunities. Those whose work kept them more hidden from public view engaged in other strategic forms of self-promotion in the hope of publicizing their work. For example, Enrique made a point of leaving supplies and equipment in and around his truck to identify himself as a pool cleaner, which was harder to see since he worked in backyards. This became apparent when I noticed him speaking with a client’s neighbor. When I asked Enrique how the neighbor knew he cleaned pools, he responded, “You see that net? I always leave one sticking out the back window.” In this case, the neighbor explained that he had just moved into the neighborhood and was looking for someone to clean his pool. Enrique gave the man his phone number and, several weeks later—having “caught” the client with his net—added the home to his route.

When I asked Enrique why he did not post a sign and phone number on his truck—which seemed a more straightforward way to share his information—he replied: “Porque no vale la pena.” (Because it’s not worth it.) Like Enrique, few of the other men had business cards or any identifying information on their trucks or their work clothes. Some claimed to have advertised this way in the past, but had not found that it attracted much business. In any case, these more formal signs of organization might have made them appear more expensive and regulated. There was a certain benefit for their business to appear informal, small scale, and presumably undocumented in the eyes of their clients, as when Titi’s client asked for help from one of his “friends” to fix her fireplace. Publicizing a company name and phone number on one’s truck or work clothes would have disrupted this image. Moreover, clients and workers alike appreciated the value of referrals—rather than more indirect methods—to initiate work arrangements. In fact, some clients later confided to me that they had not seriously considered initiating a project until they saw the men at work, which suggests that the prospect of finding someone to do a competent job represented a barrier overcome by the visibility of the men.

That these men secured work through referrals should be of little surprise, especially to migration scholars who repeatedly show the significance of social networks in employment outcomes. Indeed, a common theme in migration studies is the mobilization of interpersonal ties by immigrants to further their material interests. The men secured work through multiple sources, which together formed a dynamic web of relations that expanded with every successful project. However, as we shall see, the most noteworthy and illuminating aspect of the men’s work proved to be the consequences of networking on the job.

Zapata and Enrique sharing a laugh

Networking on the Job

Referrals figured prominently in workplace dynamics, both in terms of how the men viewed and carried out their work and how clients attempted to motivate and control their labor. For example, the men claimed to take on projects and even lower their fee in the hope of securing future work. For reasons that often escaped my attention, they looked beyond the require- ments of any one task when deciding which projects to pursue, how much to charge, and how to conduct themselves on the job.

The prospect of further employment and greater earnings was always on the men’s minds as they negotiated with clients and completed a given project. For example, as Titi painted the interior of the condominium apartment referred to in the opening vignette, he repeatedly told me that he expected to paint the exterior of the building, which he pointed out needed a fresh coat. In fact, it became a running joke between us every time we went outside for him to tell me: “I’m going to paint this build- ing.” He later told me that he was motivated to take the inside job in the hope of securing the more lucrative outside job. Although it turned out that the residents were not ready to repaint the exterior, Titi eventually won a job painting several rooms in another unit, thanks to the client’s recommendation.

For a different client, Titi agreed to do a small-scale painting job in the expectation of getting hired for additional work he felt was necessary, given the condition of the home. As he anticipated, the initial $500 job to paint the front porch led to the much larger $9,000 contract to paint the entire home’s interior. Like Titi, the men were eager to secure employ- ment in homes that appeared to require substantial work, even if meant beginning with smaller, less profitable projects. The wealth and aspirations of clients were also taken into account. For example, when pursuing the initial porch project, Titi told me with a big smile that the client “tiene mucha plata” (has a lot of money). Similarly, Valderrama explained his interest in a potential job because he had heard that the client bought and sold houses. By contrast, some clients were found to be stingy or short on funds and thus not worth cultivating.

The prospect of more lucrative jobs affected not only the men’s choice of projects, but also the quality of their work. For example, when I asked Titi why he was being especially diligent repainting a closet, he replied: “She’ll see me doing a good job and recommend me to her friends.” As mentioned earlier, Motor explained that he took extra care installing the fence around a multi-unit condominium, knowing that both the client and other residents would be watching. Based on his past experiences, he believed that once the client’s neighbors saw the quality of his work, they would consider him for their own projects. Sure enough, a second resident hired him to fix a bedroom door, and a third hired him to install a shelving unit. The last time we spoke, he had completed three more jobs in the same twelve-unit complex as he further established himself as a skillful and dependable handyman.

The quality of the men’s work, however, was not always clear to the client. Often they were not able to perceive or appreciate the effort and skill involved. Consequently, the men took pains to draw the client’s attention to less conspicuous aspects of their labor in order to highlight their diligence and expertise. They made the quality of their work more visible to earn approval for the job at hand, but also with an eye toward the future. For example, when painting the condo, Titi regularly called the client over to show her various problems he was fixing or challenges he was facing in executing the job. In one instance, he asked her to stand on his ladder to inspect a small crack in the ceiling that he was in the process of filling. “A lot of painters come and just paint without looking,” he explained to her. “I take my time and do it right.” This interaction served not only to highlight the quality of his work, but also to assuage the client’s growing concerns over how long the job was taking.

Like Titi, the men often asked clients to inspect their work and compared themselves favorably to less skilled or less careful workers in order to tout their services and justify what they charged. And, like Titi, they also employed a range of other tactics to showcase their talents, including more indirect strategies, such as making elaborate gestures to cover and protect furniture or leaving expensive materials in full view for clients to see, even if they didn’t actually use them on the job. Similarly, several painters told clients they bought materials from an upscale shop in Santa Monica, when they really bought cheaper alternatives from Home Depot. Above all, they were always careful to maintain clean and tidy job sites. At times, the men employed more duplicitous strategies to impress their clients, such as taking shortcuts without informing them, concealing problems, or taking longer on tasks to make the work seem more involved in order to increase their fee. For example, Motor surreptitiously removed part of a railing to maintain a level fence, and Pow Wow concealed a scratch on a floor using a colored marker and putty. In one of the more extreme cases, a man I shadowed filled a garbage bag with dirt from outside, which he then claimed to the homeowner to have cleaned off the window frames and blinds. As Güero explained, it was important to “mantener” (care for and cultivate) the client, and there were a variety of ways to do this, some more underhanded than others.

The men also explained that they adjusted their pricing in relation to what the job might bring. For example, Titi claimed that he could have charged $7,000 for the condo painting job. But hoping a lower fee would lead to additional jobs in the building and worried about being outpriced by someone else, he decided to charge only $5,000. By contrast, Titi confided to me that he inflated his price on a different job because he did not expect it to lead to subsequent work. Similarly, Motor offered a relatively low price on the fence job because it was his first project at the site, correctly anticipating that it would lead to other work, provided he did a good job.

The men also considered the long-term prospects of a particular client. For example, Valderrama agreed to charge one client a low rate because, as the owner of several apartment buildings, he had provided a steady supply of work for him over the previous fifteen years. These jobs became especially important as Valderrama struggled to find work with other clients during the economic downturn that began in 2008. In fact, whenever we discussed his work history and prospects, Valderrama quipped, but only half-jokingly, that this key employer “better not die!” When dealing with their regular clients, the men offered special treatment in addition to inexpensive rates. For example, Chango served regularly as a handyman for one family, and Motor did frequent work for the owner of a dozen rental homes. In both cases, the work was not always lucrative and could interfere with other projects, but the men always gave them priority. At first, I was perplexed to see them leave a job or the park to attend to their clients’ needs—sometimes for something as small as a blown fuse or burned-out lightbulb. However, I grew to appreciate how important these clients were to the men because of the steady work they had provided over the years. In cases such as these, seemingly trivial tasks were understood as part of larger endeavors.

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For the most part, the men’s approach to their work coincided with clients’ interests. Clients wanted quality work at a reasonable price, which explains why they initially hired the men and subsequently rehired or referred them to others. That many of the men were skilled in a variety of trades—or usually knew someone who could do the work they could not—was crucial for securing the various jobs that unfolded in the life of a home. Chango’s work for a key client over twelve months illustrated this diversity and consistency of ventures: at this client’s home, he repainted two bedrooms, rewired a bathroom, delivered and installed a large bookcase, and removed a small tree from the backyard.

The alignment between the men’s skill and affordability, on the one hand, and the clients’ needs, on the other, was hardly surprising. More surprising were the ways clients deliberately exploited the possibility of future work as a source of leverage and control. For example, when negotiating costs with Titi, the client repeatedly mentioned: “I know people with money.” When installing the fence, the client tried to lower the price by suggesting to Motor that the other condominium residents would want his services, especially with his recommendation. One of Güero’s prospective clients made a similar point as they were negotiating a bimonthly gardening contract: “Everyone knows me here. I’ll help you out.”

Clients also used the prospect of future jobs to motivate the men to do their best work. They understood that the workers had longer-term interests and tried to leverage their best performance by tapping into their ambitions. It was a game of persuasion played by both parties, but with different goals and resources. For example, as one of Titi’s clients was inspecting his work, she reiterated that if he did a good job, she would be sure to refer him to her “rich friends.” She then added: “Trust me, they know I’m picky,” implying that her recommendation carried weight. Similarly, after a decorator helped Chango secure a painting job with one of her wealthy clients, she told him in front of the homeowners: “This is good for you. Make sure you do a good job.” We see a similar approach used by the client who hired Motor for the fence project discussed earlier. After inspecting Motor’s handiwork, the client joked that he would soon be working all over the neighborhood—a prediction he then fulfilled by introducing Motor to a neighbor who needed a broken window frame fixed. This, as we saw, led to several other projects in the same building. In the case of longtime clients, the prospect of future work could go unspoken, but nevertheless motivated the men to do their best. For example, when I asked Valderrama why he was redoing a section of a wall for one of his main clients, he replied, “He would eventually see [the problem], and then I’d be in trouble.” Valderrama and the others knew the risks of losing a valued client.

Extracting “Extras”

While referrals opened up the possibility for future work, “extras” were often a sure way for the men to increase their earnings. By “extras”—a term used by the men—I refer to work added to the initial job agreement. In most cases, the men were financially compensated for this additional work, although clients were adept at extracting free labor as well.

Given the nature of the home and workplace, the possibilities for supplemental work were ever present. Most homeowners had a long list of home-improvement needs apart from what they actually hired the men to do. Some predated the men’s arrival; others emerged over the course of a project. Motivated by the men’s presence and know-how, clients regularly asked them to take on additional tasks. These tasks were generally small and seemingly minor. For example, one of Titi’s clients asked him to do a variety of chores as he painted her condominium, a job that took approximately three weeks to complete. Over the course of two consecutive days, she asked him to change a lightbulb, hang a picture frame, water a plant, empty the trash, watch her dog, retrieve boxes from storage, and help her unload groceries from her car. The client prefaced each request with some version of “since you’re here.” Some of these tasks she certainly could have done herself, but others—like changing a hard-to-reach light bulb and hanging a heavy picture frame—would have been too difficult for her to do. But for Titi, these were relatively simple undertakings, especially with the help of a tall ladder and a strong coworker. Hiring someone for these menial jobs, however, would have seemed outlandish.

As I observed with Titi and several other of the men, clients often asked workers to do unpaid jobs around the home unrelated to the project for which they were hired. For example, as Motor was removing an old fence around an apartment complex, one of the residents asked him if he could remove a dozen wood planks from her back porch. This request was more substantial than most, taking us around twenty minutes to remove and dispose of the rotting wood. The client’s visible relief suggested that she felt unable to remove the rotting wood herself. Yet for Motor and his helper, moving the wood was relatively easy; moreover, he had his truck to haul it away. In this case, as in many others, the men possessed the strength, skill, and equipment to take on tasks their clients could not. Motor agreed to the work without any mention of pay, but after we finished, he told the resident that she should call him if she needed any additional assistance. Later that day, she asked Motor if he could fix an uneven door. In this case, she paid him $100 for two hours of work.

I was repeatedly struck by how frequently and nonchalantly clients asked the men to do work beyond what they were initially hired to do. They seemed to believe that hiring workers for one job entitled them to complimentary assistance on other household tasks, some of which they could have done themselves. The men’s informal status was key, in contrast to formal companies, where everything had a contractual rate and protocol. Differences in race, class, and citizenship might also have emboldened clients to make these requests, as did dangling the prospect of future work and recommendations to other potential clients.

The men generally attended to their clients’ wishes, although in private they sometimes expressed frustration over these intrusions. For example, after a series of interruptions, Titi’s helper exclaimed: “I wish she’d leave us alone.” He found her frequent requests invasive and sometimes draining; but most of all, they interrupted the work they had been paid to do and kept them from moving onto other paid projects. But Titi told his helper not to worry because “it keeps her happy” and because he was counting on her recommendation to her “rich friends.” Like Titi, most of the men were willing to take on minor—often easy—unpaid tasks in order to ingratiate themselves with their clients in the hope of gaining additional paid work.

While clients were more likely to initiate side jobs, the men themselves sometimes volunteered to take care of tasks separate from what they were hired to do. This work was usually minor as well, as when Valderrama asked a client if he needed help moving garbage bags to the alley or when Titi offered to repair the latch on a door. In cases like these, the men capitalized on their superior knowledge and capability, as well as cultural expectations about their subservient position, in order to curry favor with their clients. Most of the men’s clients took for granted free labor of this kind. Yet always with their eyes fixed on the future, the men viewed these unpaid tasks and their subordinate position within a broader and potentially more lucrative frame of exchanges. Like their clients, they exploited their informal status, which gave them the flexibility to execute their work and fees on a case-by-case basis. By doing these favors, they transformed the relationship, creating an expectation of reciprocity in the future.

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Taking on extra work was not simply a way to keep clients happy. Extras also regularly surfaced as a key source of additional revenue. But in contrast to unpaid labor, most of these paid projects were anticipated and initiated by the workers. They also grew out of the work the men were hired to do, in contrast to the more disparate tasks described above. By altering the home, whether in small or substantial ways, new possibilities for payment often emerged. Some men even lowered their bids or agreed to smaller projects in expectation of expanding the scope of work and making more money as the job progressed.

The mutability of the scope of work was evident in many jobs I observed or heard about from the men. For example, Chango was hired to paint adjoining living and dining rooms. He encouraged the client to add crown molding, but she declined. She felt it was unnecessary and was worried about the added costs and complications. However, after the client saw the bare walls and rooms emptied of furniture—a requirement agreed upon for the job—she agreed that crown molding would look better and consented to the higher price. Chango later explained that he had not initially pushed for the more expensive project because he was confident she would agree to it once he emptied the room. I asked him if this often happened, and he responded with a sigh: “¡Siempre es lo mismo!” (It’s always the same!)

On some projects, unexpected complications emerged that also increased the costs. For example, Chicas was hired to install a new light and heat- ing fixture in a bathroom. The job seemed relatively straightforward, and Chicas negotiated a price of $100 plus materials. However, in the course of removing the old unit, Chicas identified a problem that required fixing. He explained to the client that the wires needed to be replaced and recommended installation of a separate breaker for the unit. The client agreed to the expanded work, which increased the cost to $300.

As with Chicas, clients sometimes had to take workers at their word when agreeing to additional work and pay. In such cases, the men depended on their reputation and powers of persuasion to convince the client, who at first might have been hesitant and distressed at the thought of increased costs. The average client’s ignorance and lack of skills also worked to the men’s advantage, since skilled homeowners might choose to do the work themselves. Regarding the bathroom job mentioned earlier, Chicas told the client that he had installed a similar breaker and wiring system in his own home. Similarly, to convince a hesitant homeowner to add crown molding in her living and dining rooms, Chango claimed that this was a standard feature in the homes of many of his clients. More typically, the problem was more or less self-evident, especially when pointed out and explained by the workers. For example, when Chino Julio removed the carpeting in a client’s house in order to refinish the wood floor underneath, he discov- ered damaged floorboards throughout the small home. When he called to explain the problem, the client asked him if he could simply repair the wood or fill in the gaps with putty. Chino Julio replied that this was not feasible and urged the client to come see for himself. After seeing all the damage, the client consented to the additional work. As he left to return to work, he yelled out: “Just let me know how much more it’s going to cost!”

New tasks often emerged due to the very nature of home-improvement projects. Once work began, clients tended to see their homes in a new light, which sometimes convinced them to agree to additional work they had initially declined or not even contemplated. As we have seen, empty rooms and torn-out carpeting presented new possibilities. The intrusive quality of renovation projects encouraged additional work, particularly those that required significant construction. Once clients saw holes in the wall and their furniture displaced, they often consented to expanded projects. They realized that doing additional work separately would have been much more expensive and disruptive. I frequently heard clients utter a version of the comment “since you’ve started” to explain their decision to consent to additional work and increased costs. Comments like these seemed to echo the logic behind that other common refrain “since you’re here” that motivated clients to request uncompensated side jobs.

As these different examples show, most of the men anticipated the possibility of extras, which motivated them to take on jobs that may initially have appeared small scale and low paying. In some cases, they doubled or tripled their earnings through additional work. Expanded projects also solidified their reputations as capable workers and led to future work and referrals. They were investing in their future, since the job they had in hand was not the one they needed to worry about.

Extras were the only way some workers could substantially increase their pay. Unlike their bigger competitors, independent contractors in this informal economy could not take advantage of economies of scale, relying instead on more intermittent gains. For example, Güero and Enrique supplemented their regular work for companies with side jobs. Güero charged around $200 a month for weekly gardening jobs, Enrique a bit less for cleaning and servicing pools. Yet both men supplemented these monthly paychecks thanks to the occasional extras that emerged. For example, Güero added annual and biannual upgrades to his weekly assignments (such as cleaning gutters, planting flowers, or trimming trees) that earned him additional money. Similarly, Enrique augmented his earnings through more periodic tasks, such as emptying pools for deeper cleanings, repairing broken tiles, or fixing filtration systems. However, in order to obtain these extras, the two men needed to hold on to the weekly jobs, which they claimed were not very lucrative on their own. Not surprisingly, they were frustrated by the clients who never went beyond the primary agreement.

Although additional tasks often increased the overall costs of projects, clients did not hesitate to exploit workplace conditions to advance their interests. In addition to receiving free labor for relatively minor tasks, they expected and generally received a discounted rate for more substantial extras—an arrangement that lowered the cost in comparison to what they would have paid to hire someone separately. A case in point is when Titi identified a leak in the kitchen ceiling of a client who asked him to check all the accessible pipes. With the kitchen walls and ceiling already opened up, this was a relatively simple task, so Titi agreed to check the pipes at no charge. To the client’s great relief, Titi’s brother found and fixed the source of the leak in another section of the house. Thanks to him, the client received a free inspection of his pipes—and peace of mind. Hiring a plumber to do this job from scratch would have meant much higher costs, not to mention all the inconvenience. Had Titi and his brother found additional leaks, they presumably would have earned additional money to fix the problems.

As in Titi’s case, I frequently observed the clients taking advantage of work in progress to attend to issues not included in the original scope of the project. Some requests were related to the task at hand; others were less connected but made possible by the work. For example, as Valderrama was digging holes to build a backyard wall, the client asked him to lay plastic tubes for a sprinkler system he eventually planned to set up. Valderrama agreed to do the work free of charge, even though it required digging several additional holes. On a different job, Motor was asked to run wiring along a fence he was installing. Like Valderrama, Motor did the work at no additional cost, hoping to impress his new clients. Attaching the wire was not difficult, and the clients were pleased to have outdoor lighting without having to find someone else to install it and pay for their services. As Valderrama, Motor, and the others knew well, work in private homes was an evolving and negotiated endeavor, and they were adept at dealing with clients’ changing needs.

Working Connections

On balance, this chapter presents an optimistic account of the men’s world of work. It highlights their autonomy and capacity for negotiation, as well as the freedom with which they made themselves and their work visible in public. The men had something to offer that their customers lacked: namely, know-how that might not require formal schooling but that generally entailed a certain level of competence and certainly more skill than their clients possessed or were prepared to acquire.

The more I learned about the men’s work, the more I came to appreciate the significance of the phone call described at the beginning of the chapter. For Titi and other men at the park—especially those involved in home-maintenance and home-improvement work—employment opportunities were structured by their social relations. In a world that prioritized personal connections and referrals, Titi’s excitement over the incoming call was understandable. This could be his big break, which is why his mother-in-law—despite their differences—had recommended him for the job. With these high stakes in play, Titi’s face brightened at the voice on the other line, and he agreed to meet with the client right away to discuss the project. His enthusiasm proved prescient. After establishing himself as a capable and trustworthy painter, the client recommended him to several of her friends and neighbors, some of whom hired him for their own painting projects. And, as we have seen, Titi ended up doing a range of additional jobs in their homes as well—some paid for, others done for free.

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The work experiences recounted in this chapter stand in sharp contrast to other, more common depictions of low-wage immigrant workers. For example, immigrants working as babysitters, housekeepers, or for cleaning services are usually more or less interchangeable with parents, relatives, or non-immigrant caretakers. By contrast, because the upper-middle-class lifestyles or aspirations of the men’s clients have often committed them to investments requiring long-term maintenance, their relationship to the men tends to be ongoing and not one-off as it would be had they hired a day laborer. This mutual interdependence helps explain why the economic recession of 2008 was not totally disastrous for the men.

Despite their ingenuity and hard work, the men confronted challenges and setbacks working in the home-improvement sector of the economy. They faced stiff competition from other workers, which tended to drive down wages.The pressure to find work and maintain equipment proved burdensome as well—a main reason why some men preferred working for companies or in restaurants. An unregulated work environment and social differences with their clients could also be marginalizing and lead to the men’s exploitation. They were hired for their willingness to work, which sometimes forced them to accept unfair working conditions, including from clients who believed they were purchasing the right to have the men perform whatever tasks they stipulated. The men also found themselves barred from more lucrative projects because they lacked the necessary permits, licenses, and insurance policies, which confined them to smaller-scale work where these qualifications and credentials were not required. In this way, their marginal status was a double-edged sword that both facilitated and constrained their opportunities. Imperfect English also ruled them out from jobs that required more prolonged or complex communication. Thus, while pleased to be working on their own—and no longer as ayudantes—the men faced numerous roadblocks in their efforts to climb the socioeconomic ladder.

Perhaps most importantly, not all networks were created equal, nor were they permanent. Just as social connections could expand and in- crease opportunities, networks could also be unreliable and transitory.For example, while Motor boasted that “people call me now” to explain his heavy workload, Martín lamented that his contacts had retired, died, or moved away. And, as Titi’s case revealed, it takes time, perseverance, and lucky breaks to start out on one’s own. Despite these challenges, the men adapted in creative ways to create greater demand for their services. Most notably, they negotiated referrals and extras on the job to survive in a competitive, often precarious labor market.

Workers as People

When following the men at work, my thoughts inevitably returned to the park. This was due in part to the men themselves, as they often talked about goings-on at the park as we worked together or as we strategized ways to return in time for the midday soccer games or post-match beer drinking. I was constantly reminded how these worlds of work and play were intertwined. In ways I heard about but later confirmed firsthand, the park served as a place to build the relationships and reputations that helped many of the men secure employment. Others relied on the park as an arena to find hired hands they could count on, often on short notice. While this chapter focuses on work in private homes, I learned of similar network-based hiring practices in restaurants, another primary source of employment at the park. With many of the workers limited by their credentials and immigration status—as well as by a competitive labor market and isolated work environment—the park emerged as a key networking site and source of stability in the men’s lives.So, in contrast, to the men’s oft-repeated lament “el parque no paga” (the park doesn’t pay), time there could indeed pay off.

As we have seen, few of the men held traditional nine-to-five jobs. Their employment situations tended to be precarious, requiring them to be “on call” for phone calls that might or might not come. The park solved the problem of what to do while they waited by allowing them to pass the time in a meaningful way. Like other precariously employed individuals who seek refuge in coffee shops or libraries, playing soccer and socializing at the park helped fill the time between jobs, while also providing connections that helped the men find work.

But for the Mar Vista soccer cohort, the park represented much more than simply a convenient pit stop and useful networking site for immigrant workers. More importantly, it became a place for the men to enrich their lives. Here they could be someone in ways they couldn’t necessarily be at work. At the park, they participated in a social world where they were viewed as people valued for their history and for achievements beyond their abilities to wash dishes, lay tile, or mow lawns. My visits with the men on the job gave them an opportunity to share this world with their employers, who seemed to wonder how I knew them. Polo revealed the significance of these exchanges when I ate at the restaurant where he worked. He came over to my table with several waitresses and encouraged me to tell them about his soccer-playing exploits. In return, he touted my prowess on the field and my studies at UCLA. Like Polo, many of the men I accompanied on the job made a point of explaining to their employers that we knew each other from playing soccer together at the park. I sensed the employers’ curiosity and the men’s satisfaction as they relayed this information in ways suggesting that this was the first time they had communicated an identity beyond work to them.

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Not surprisingly, the relationship between the men’s work and what they had created at the park was entirely absent from debates about the soccer field recounted in the concluding chapter. While some local residents were sympathetic to the men’s need for recreation, many others felt that their presence was bringing disorder and disrepute to the park and surround- ing area. But neither side in the debate seemed to appreciate how park life enriched the men’s work opportunities, in ways comparable to White men networking on the golf course, over drinks at a bar, or at a professional luncheon. Even the men’s family members failed to appreciate the importance of socializing at the park, including Valderrama’s brother, who refused to hire “los borrachos del parque” (the park drunks), as well as several spouses who urged me to avoid the park and spoke disparagingly of it to my wife.

Yet I always suspected there was a deeper, more sinister reason for outsiders’ aversion to the men’s presence and activities at the park. To put it bluntly, the working-class Latino immigrant men were seen as “out of place” at the park during “normal” working hours because they were expected to be working. It was not only the men’s foreignness that provoked this backlash, but what was perceived as their idleness. In fact, I often heard field critics question why the men were not working, as when one local resident wrote over email: “Don’t these guys have jobs?”Police officers posed similar questions when interrogating the men at the park.

The hostility the men faced for “playing” in the park contrasted sharply with the warm welcome they received as workers in people’s homes— including by homeowners living only a few miles from the park. As workers in people’s homes, their presence and activities were not only embraced, but actively sought after and relied on for all the reasons explained in this chapter. In fact, most homeowners seemed to have a marked preference for foreign-born Latino workers, which my presence appeared to disrupt—and hence their apparent relief when they learned I was not a “real” worker. Yet despite the substantial social and cultural differences separating the men from their clients, these relationships depended on trust and involved close interactions behind closed doors. Workers saw their clients at their most vulnerable and in their most private domestic spaces. Clients, for their part, spoke fondly of the men, even in familial terms, and occasionally offered them “gifts,” usually household items and clothing they no longer had use for. And even if colored by their social differences and the constraints of employer-employee relations, over time these relationships often developed a degree of comfort and familiarity, as conversations about work led to questions about the worker’s family and country of birth.

The men did not receive the same welcome at the park, where their foreignness and working-class status were perceived as threatening, rather than as reassuring and appealing. There, they became “bad hombres.” At the park, the men interacted with local residents from a distance, becoming visible and menacing in ways they were not when they were working in people’s homes. In fact, the stigma associated with “brown-collar occupations” seemed to accentuate differences that made them unwelcome in the park but approachable on the job. By contrast, I never sensed that Latina immigrant nannies faced resentment of this kind when they came to the park with their charges from the neighborhood; parkgoers and neighbors seemed to understand that they were there simply doing their job.31 This disjuncture between the worlds of work and leisure points to the enduring dilemma faced by immigrant workers. As Swiss playwright Max Frisch famously noted in an essay about foreign workers’ feelings of alienation, “We asked for workers, but people came.” Immigrants are desired for their labor, not for their social presence, and the men I studied broke that bargain by socializing as people in the park.


Dr. David Trouille is Assistant Professor of Sociology at James Madison University

Notes:

Excerpt taken from Fútbol in the Park: Immigrants, Soccer, and the Creation of Social Ties (The University of Chicago Press, 2021)

Reviews

Notes on our hemispheric inheritance: A Review of Angel Dominguez’s “Desgraciado: The Collected Letters”

José Felipe Alvergue

“This Brown body in repose is never quite in repose, always in question of who will see it, and will they be a threat—do I die today, like this?—this body full of colonization-dystrophy with its instinct to feed upon the flesh of my oppressor? How are you supposed to politely reject your suffering? Genocide is not a matter of opinion.” (27)

There is a haptic, generalized consumption to dystrophy. An appetite that can be insightful and critical, precise, and terminological. It’s also characterized as a wasting away, a concerning health condition. When I read Angel Dominguez’s Desgraciado: The Collected Letters I am invited into a reflection of my own processes of making sense of hemispheric subjectivization, both as a member of a diaspora community as well as someone who grew up on the Tijuana River Valley. I learned there that despite the prehistorically shaped ridge connecting Tijuana to Playas before bowing to meet the Pacific, and the rusted incision of the ‘wall’ itself, la frontera remains an atmospheric experience of exchanges, and relationships. Which is to say, it is a landscape where change and cycle occurs over the event of an origination, ecological and political. The “colonization-dystrophy” of it all is rather dynamic, but not without moments and pains that can and should be named. Dominguez makes a study of this: “Tato’s mother calls it ‘colonial sickness’, the latent radiation poisoning of colonization”; or, it is a “colonial atrophy,” wherein one “can almost feel the atoms falling” away (86). These are the bounds of a vatic attention to the material evidence of a trauma that has become, also, through an entangled archival system of literally manifesting events each time critique inches itself toward a light, a form of expenditure.

“Live from the mystery itself, writing love letters to keep myself alive” (86). 

The moments that shake me from over-theorizing are those where Dominguez concludes on “love.” What comes before and what follows that notion I piece together as an intimacy that is without resolve. It is rather the full expenditure into something. Something like a relationship, or an imagination. An expenditure we might consider in the lost time and history burned in piles during colonial conversions, and the public displays that would accompany its project inquisition.

“What are you going to do about it? Diego, what are we going to do about it? I want all the artifacts back. Museums are a fucking lie. I want my language back. I want to reconcile the many afterlives of colonization that keep raging inside of me; I want to know a love like the burn of belts and chanclas, the RNA memories handed down from flogging and being flogged by our ancestors. I want to know the love of forgiveness. Like how do you put down a dog that attacked you? How do I put you to bed while pulling you back into my blood?

Like a reverse exorcism, I’m calling you into my body. Stay with me.” (43)

But before going on I want to pause and offer some careful thoughts. Maybe they’re not thoughts, in fact, but wisdom from José Estaban Muñoz: “Brown, it is important to mention, is not strictly the shared experience of harm between people and things; it is also the potential for the refusal and resistance to that often-systemic harm. Brownness is a kind of uncanny persistence in the face of distressed conditions of possibility.”[1] When I consider the various ways I’ve come across someone else, someone often Brown, taking the dystrophy Dominguez captures here above, and putting it on the page, giving it a color or texture, associating to it a sound, a movement of the body in space, and so on, I am struck by the condition of supremacy today. It is the marketing pressure to somehow “heal” from the inescapable condition/s it itself maintains from its own lack of communication.

Yet Dominguez’s is a strategy against the spectacularization of the dystrophic condition, which is the objective of supremacy. Supremacy seeks to spectacularize one mode of feeling blunt force by numbing or dismembering the victim from methods of communicating it back, and thereby legitimating (fantasizing) its own power by disenfranchising the relationship power’s violence needs to survive. To write it, is to thus refuse to be afraid of the difference caused by the disjunctive, dissociating world-making that arises from experiencing both harm and life in the persistent manner Muñoz identifies above. To write and name the paradox befuddles the knowledge systems that textualize us. In their epistolary project Dominguez works through the labor of compiling a record of a process and work which have been thought lost to a 500-year-old fire.

“Whereas the psychotherapeutic literature concludes that Latinos suffer anxiety and depression more than any other group,” Muñoz underscores, “the epidemiological literature concludes that they possess better physical health than any other group and live longer than would be expected,” an “uncanny physical persistence” that “has been enshrined within the term ‘epidemiological paradox’ invented to name it.”[2] Or as Dominguez writes, “We are resilient insofar as we are feeling” (80). To find closure, as I understand it, would be to close the loop on feeling, as something that destabilizes the epistemological networks that hold and betray us. It would be the disavowal of a poetics, which others would seek to subsume into theoretical frameworks devoid of feeling but engorged by the self-applause of an advertisement. And I say poetics because of the temporal reconsideration of the dystrophic as a communication-disruption that emerges in colonial contact and is disfigured by the public act of burning language systems and archives during indigenous conversion. There is a poetics that recaptures the vatic temporality of event while creating the very space for the processing of the implicit intimacy it asks.

Desgraciado is a process. “You forced death down the throats of so many,” they write to “Diego,” and “now I have white people to tell me about it. To tell me all about everything it is I lack” (19). The paradigm shift of work like this, at least one aspect of this shift, is recasting the role and animation of “feeling,” especially as it pertains to existence, both intrapersonal and public. Fray Diego de Landa’s notoriety is often furnished by depictions[3] of the auto-de-fé, wherein in 1562 de Landa ordered the destruction of the Mayan codices and over 5,000 devotional images and idols. They were all burned publicly in Mani, Yucatán. Though we might learn about the auto-de-fé in the purely religious context of conversion, the spectacular lesson of a public burning evokes a purposefully and strategically aligned internalization of corregimiento. In a purely aesthetic sense, a sensible sense, I am speaking maybe of depictions of de Landa’s atrocity, where the faces of the burning statuettes plead through color and brushstroke in an unmistakably human manner.

But what I actually mean is that the public burning, as a spectacularization of the power to correct, becomes an intergenerational reality that lives on through the enactment of new violent actions that originate as an attempt to confront and overcome the latent fear that arises when your life is threatened by a power more extensive than any direct, inter-personal encounter with a recognizable other. You end up writing letters to it because the totality of this one-way act is your world, your love, your worries, your partner-in-crime, your lens. You are given it by those in your life, and are above you in a line of inheritance, and they lash out against the fear as if on trial themselves, in an inquisition of themselves via the object (of intimacy) that is you and them, and everything else. “[M]ade to feel a constant estrangement to my truth,” writes Dominguez when reflecting on the abuse from their “then-father” and his “machismo-addled-brain,” which is to say, without absolving his homophobia and violence, the externalized unprocessed damage expressed, powerfully, as burning. One forcibly brought forth as a witnessed event by the inclusion of the abused. “[U]n angel,” as Dominguez signs off (78-79).

Yet there is that other critique, and it’s one I cannot stop thinking about as an immigrant border subject. Which is a rewriting of angelicity itself in the context of hemispheric identity, of Walter Benjamin’s heroic melancholia in regard to historicity. And maybe it takes a sight of a material piece of evidence, like a border, in both the windshield and the rear-view, back and forth, back and forth to understand this looping intimacy. And so, though Dominguez es un angel, they also claim Chaac, the Mayan god of rain. With a lightning bolt in one hand, and literally the power to transform a landscape into the ashen mud of a new form. The most beautiful of days, the most lasting of impressions from being in the midst of the estuary that is the Tijuana River Valley, for me, were those overcast days where a heavy moisture watched over us all in a gently laid weight pressing down on us through the physics of a pulsing gray matter––the immediate experience of an atmosphere felt from below, from being bound to our humanness. I imagine those days as Chaac’s.

The colonizers did one thing meticulously, aside from murder, and that was keep notes. The archives we have of their actions and intentions is impressive. But they don’t speak, so to speak. Dominguez’s decision on the epistle is captivating for the way it speaks to what refuses to respond, and does so in a deluge of writing, which is the reflection of a thinking-feeling-writing-reading. The subject meant to recede into a violent blaze of corrected silence is the one with an abundance of language on the matter of their intimacy. The “collection” is a totality invoked but not recorded by the same system of conversion and erasure. The disruption to the inherent temporality of the letter (the record) functions both on reflection and vatic projection, in that their reception is always already a past, which in its moment was an interval past even that moment of their own event, but thrown into a new authority as the record which will exist in the moment of its intelligibility.

As the collection advances the reader is enveloped in a process.

“…I can’t make a fire. I’m trying to yield more than I advance. I am learning that not all words are always heard or spoken, though in this moment I hope every dictionary snaps its spine into a deafening ocean… A colonizer on every corner. I wonder what they would have called me if your language never came. Between you and me, I really prefer the name Chaac.

Love,

Rain.”  (3)

What I received from the book, and for me the review is maybe about this because of the strength with which I felt it, is permission to unlearn that shame of being burned in public. The disavowal of language that is de Landa’s auto-de-fé is his own, and is a site of reanimated poetics towards the neocolonial burnings and attempted corregimientos. I have no illness to heal from, and though it’s not about absolution, the sheer collection of process here reveals a culminating position within its intimacy, its love, that is also the culmination of (a) work. Our work does not absolve the ghosts of colonialism either, those which carry-on in the flesh-troping obsessions with spectacle, and silence, with new kinds of burning and policymaking, all the violence of today’s supremacy. Angel Dominguez has given us a weapon, a codex with which to fortify and record a new communication.

DESGRACIADO: (the collected letters) by Angel Dominguez © 2022 by Nightboat Books. Used by permission of the publisher. Link to title

José Felipe Alvergue is the author of three books of poetry, most recently scenery, which was selected for Fordham University Press’s Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize. He is a Senior Poetry Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and his published scholarship engages with poetics, transnationalism, performance, and democratism. He lives and works in Wisconsin.


Notes

[1] José Esteban Muñoz, The Sense of Brown, 2020, p.4.

[2] Muñoz, 5.

[3] See for example Fernando Castro Pacheco’s mural, “The Spanish bishop Diego de Landa is burning figures of Mayan deities,” Palacio del Gobierno, Mérida, MX.  

José Felipe Alvergue is the author of three books of poetry, most recently scenery, which was selected for Fordham University Press’s Poets Out Loud Editor’s Prize. He is a Senior Poetry Editor for Tupelo Quarterly, and his published scholarship engages with poetics, transnationalism, performance, and democratism. He lives and works in Wisconsin.

Articles

Whose Farm, Which Fork?: An Assemblage of Critical Observations on Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Campaign

Kimberly D. Nettles-Barcelón

In the spring of 2015 while waiting in line at Starbucks Coffeehouse in a Greenhaven, Sacramento strip mall, I picked up an issue of Sacramento Magazine to pass the time.[1]  While thumbing through it the advertisement featuring the Juneteenth Black Chefs Collaborative (IMAGE #1) immediately caught my eye. I was aware of the city’s rebranding as The Farm-to-Fork Capital but I had not seen any images connected with it featuring Black people.[2] The ad piqued my interest and I spent the next several months gathering additional images associated with the campaign.

The five ads I found, that ran from about January 2015 through January 2016, frame the key optics of the campaign and its slogan -“We Are America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital.” In addition to these advertisements, local media – especially magazines – served as an avenue to describe the parameters of the “farm-to-fork”: farmers, vintners, brewers, and other food craft people who make/grow/create products consumed within the restaurants, bars, festivals, and other events associated with the farm-to-fork campaign. At face value, including the ads featuring the Yisrael Family Urban Farm (IMAGE #2) and the Juneteenth Black Chefs Collaborative, lends a certain air of inclusivity to the messaging/branding. However, these images serve not as markers of how broad-based the work of the farm-to-fork campaign is but rather the degree to which there are fissures that resist containment. The ruptures in the seemingly inclusive narrative of “We are America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital” is stark in the two ads featuring Black folks.

In the Juneteenth Black Chefs Collective ad (IMAGE #1), what we see are a group of chefs whose foodwork is not connected with the spaces where they cook nor are there any relationships to farmer(s) who supply their raw food and bespoke artisanal products. The background appears urban and residential. The barred screen door and the wooden stairs and porch indicate a roughened neighborhood. Is this a home or is it a restaurant? The chefs themselves are looking in all sorts of directions, some directly at the camera and two (Pannell and E. Hayles) are looking in the distance. While the title of the Collaborative is visible, it is unclear what that means or how that ties into “farm-to-fork.” In fact, their narratives cannot fit nicely within the campaign.[3] None of these chefs hold the title of Executive Chef in an established restaurant context; cooking instead outside of the domain of standard restaurant organization as private chefs, chefs at women’s centers, caterers, or food truck owners.  They would not be on the map in terms of the connections between and amongst the top restaurateurs in this area and the region’s large scale organic farmers – connections that are central to Sacramento’s farm-to-fork ethos.

Similarly, when we see the members of the Yisrael Family Urban Farm (IMAGE #2) they are photographed in what appears to be a residential yard, holding farm implements, and dressed in earth toned t-shirts with the name of the farm. Again, how their food work resonates with the farm-to-fork campaign is not clear. Are they the farm side of the equation to the Black chefs from the Juneteenth Collaborative? Where do they grow? What is an urban farm? None of this is clear in the advertisement. Indeed, telling the complicated narratives of either group is not possible within the context of advertisements that “fundamentally talk to us as individuals and addresses us about how we can become happy. The answers it provides are all oriented to the marketplace, through the purchase of goods or services.”[4]

Sacramento’s “Farm-to-Fork Capital” campaign is, at its roots, a marketing campaign designed to boost tourism, development, and economic growth within Sacramento.[5]  This campaign attempts to sell us a vision of the “good life” which involves locally grown and produced vegetables, meats, wines, and cheeses – consumed in beautiful restaurants, wineries, farmers’ markets, well-appointed homes and backyards. The romanticized relationship between the local farmer (food or beverage producer) and the consumer is at the center of the “movement.” The uncomfortable, complex, and not-so-pretty bits of the politics of food and eating is deftly pushed to the margins.

In this essay, I consider some of the images associated with the Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign to think about the power of this work to shape public discourse surrounding issues of food, place, and social change in the Sacramento area. I write as both a consumer of this imagery (primarily through attending local “farm-to-fork” events and reading articles about them) and as a scholar and teacher of critical food studies at the university level. My feminist methodology contains both auto-ethnographic and critical media studies within its toolkit – using juxtaposition as my space of inquiry.

Throughout, this essay, I argue that Sacramento’s “Farm-to-Fork Capital” campaign (circa 2012-2020) utilizes advertising, magazine articles, and large public facing events to both define the city and the meanings of farm-to-fork in ways that minimize the racial, ethnic, citizenship, gender, and class inequities undergirding our food systems – locally, nationally, and globally. I also explore the ways that the experiences of folks whose work should be at the center of any endeavor to create a just food system are pushed to the margins of the high-end farm-to-fork marketplace. By critically reading advertisements, magazine content, and my own interactions in the “field” of Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign, I engage in an embodied and reflexive interpretation of the culture of the so-called movement.

I begin with describing the origins of the campaign in the next section with a focus on the representations of it in local publications. I then think through how the representations of the “other” – Latino farm workers and children of color – shape the public discourse about who gets to participate and how they are engaged within the farm-to-fork ethos. I end the essay with a description of a local urban farmer whose work provides a corrective to the myopic representations of farm-to-fork in the local media. I also explore the ways in which the realities of the Covid-19 pandemic and the racial reckoning of the Black Lives Matter movement have impacted the mainstream approach to farm-to-fork. As such, I end with a renewed sense of possibility as I continue to live in the midst of and critically engage Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork campaign.

The Beginnings…

Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson proclaims Sacramento the Farm‐to‐Fork Capital of America at a press conference held in Cesar Chavez Plaza on Wednesday, October 31, 2012. (Photo by Alyssa Green)

In 2012, Mayor Kevin Johnson dubbed Sacramento the “Farm-to-Fork Capital,” thereby kicking off an intense branding campaign designed to revamp the image of the city (sometimes  referred to with the pejorative “cow-town” designation) and surrounding Central Valley region to take advantage of its deep agricultural and viticulture roots and growing urban foodie culture.[6] Johnson’s efforts to rebrand the Sacramento region has also meant eliminating the “City of Trees” from official signage and brochures.[7]

The proclamation of Sacramento as the “Farm-to-Fork Capital” took place on the Cesar Chavez Plaza in Downtown, Sacramento The above photo is telling in that the platform for the press conference is placed opposite the large Chavez Memorial sculpture depicting the Farmworkers’ Movement  but no mention is made of that history in the short piece accompanying this photograph.[8] Chavez’s work with other UFW activists Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla, and Filipino farm worker movement leader, Larry Itliong to organize and secure union representation for Filipino and Mexican farmworkers in several major agricultural industries in California – tomato, winery, berry, table grapes, and dairy – is work that continues to have relevance in this contemporary moment. [9]

But Mayor Johnson’s focus that day is on amplifying the significance of Sacramento as a natural leader in national farm-to-fork efforts. “This recognition as America’s Farm-to-Fork Capital isn’t something that this region needs to grow into because we’ve been walking this walk for decades.” To buttress that point, the reporter/photographer lists how many Certified Farmers Markets exist in the region and its location in the fertile Central Valley. The piece goes on to state that in conjunction with the Mayor’s announcement, the Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau has planned a weeklong celebration. All of this aimed to support increasing community pride, local farming, and “marketing the region as a culinary tourism destination.”[10]

At the root of the “Farm-to-Fork Capital” campaign are a series of “news stories” and advertisements that identify the key players in the restaurant and beverage industry in the Sacramento region. These are people whose establishments and products turn up at most of the events tied to the campaign.  The caption on the advertisement (masquerading as an editorial feature) below reads: “The Capital City is quickly becoming nationally celebrated for its farm-to-fork ethos. In the following pages, meet some of the top chefs who are leading this movement and making the Sacramento region a hotbed of destination dining.”

Faces of Farm to Fork Sactown Magazine August/September 2014

Many of those surrounding Johnson on the Cesar Chavez Plaza in the fall of 2012 are also featured in this piece from Sactown Magazine (August/September2014). Sactown, like its slightly glossier counterpart Sacramento Magazine, runs stories classified as “lifestyle features.” The monthly magazines consist of interesting, easy-reading stories that attempt to paint Sacramento in a positive light – exploring local travel destinations (e.g., Lake Tahoe), new restaurants and shops, as well as interviews with prominent local businesspersons, athletes, or government players. Sometimes they feature compelling long-form journalism stories that focus on local issues.

What is also true about both magazines is that they often run advertising that is so integrated into the texture of the magazine that the reader is not immediately able to differentiate them. Such is the case with the above image drawn from a 20-page insert nestled between the magazine’s “What’s Cooking” section and the “Bites” restaurant listings section. It blurs the boundaries and reads like a regular feature in the magazine but is produced “[i]n Collaboration with the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau.” There are short write-ups on some of the folks pictured as well as ruminations on why Sacramento deserves its “Farm-to-Fork Capital” moniker. Each of the men (and they all are with one exception) featured are recurring faces in advertising, events, and other media related to the farm-to-fork branding[11]. Moreover, when featured, nonwhite men are usually cooking food one might describe as ethnic. Which is also the case for the one female chef/restauranteur featured—Biba Caggiano’s Italian cuisine[12]. The white male chefs have greater range and are cooking American food with touches of the Southern United States, European, or Latin cuisines. Others of the white males featured are brew masters or wine makers.

The upper-end casual dining scene in Sacramento is shaped by a few big players whose food work is imagined to be creating a chain of interconnected relationships between chefs, farmers, wine makers and brewers. For instance, the Sacramento Magazine’s “The Farmer and the Chef” (August 2015) article describes the symbiotic relationship between chef and farmer the movement mythologizes. The work of the farmer is cast here as expert and collaborator with the chef. The chef, in these portraits, understands his role as an interpreter of the bounty of produce/raw product presented him by the farmer. He does not tell the farmer what to grow, but rather is inspired by what the farmer brings to him.

Imaging Farm-to-Fork—The Farmer and the Chef

In “The Farmer and the Chef” photo essay a lot of the description of the farmer/chef experience hinges on relationships that go beyond the chef simply buying the produce. It is, instead, one where “like minds” come together to create something sensational – the food to be consumed. However, it is not just food consumption, but rather a certain image/idea about what good food is, what it should look like, and how it should taste. Equally germane is the presentation of the farmer:

[Tomato farmer, Heidi Watanabe] personally delivers to restaurants, driving the truck herself and often working until 10 or 1 p.m. Michael Thiemann [Chef/Owner of Mother vegetarian restaurant] loves when she brings her products in through [the] front door and unloads them in front of his diners. “Looks cool, huh?” she once said to Thiemann with a grin.[13]

Food work is performative work. Moreover, the performance resonates differently depending on who is playing which part. In this story, a white female farmer, driving a pick-up truck delivers produce to the popular upscale vegetarian restaurant owned by a white male chef.  The chef, who has learned from the farmer about the realities of growing and using farm product fully, can then be the erudite face of the restaurant. The farmer as white and female means a more edgy representation, but not too dangerous. She is both novelty and seen as the same social standing as the white male chef. The delivery of the produce through the front of the house makes those relations – farmer and chef — seem egalitarian. However, the female farmer/owner and the male restaurant chef/owner are at the top of the social hierarchy and visible. The workers (likely to be primarily people of color – Latino, Asian, and Black – and of all genders) who plant and harvest the produce or cook, serve, and clean at the restaurant are absent from this picture story. 

The hypervisibility of privilege is also on the stage in the “news photos” featuring the annual Farm-to-Fork Gala dinner on the Tower Bridge – which spans the Sacramento River between Old Sacramento (on the east) and West Sacramento (on the west). Closed to traffic, the bridge becomes the location fora white tablecloth dinner. Months in advance the chefs selected to prepare the meal begin planning the menu. The menu, held in the strictest of confidence until the week or so leading-up to the dinner, is “released” to great fanfare. Tickets for the dinner cost in the $175 range (per person, including alcohol) and sell-out quickly. The last few years there has been a lottery system used to distribute “fairly” the chance to purchase a ticket.[14] In the two-page spread from Sactown Magazine, we see many of the familiar faces of chefs (e.g., Randall Selland of Selland’s Family Restaurants and Kurt Spataro, Executive Chef of the Paragary Restaurant Group), winemakers, political notables (e.g., West Sacramento Mayor Cabaldon and Congresswoman Doris Matsui), and business leaders (e.g., Five Star Bank President & CEO James Beckwith). The Tower Bridge Dinner happens days after longhorn steers are driven[15] across the Tower Bridge kicking off the Farm-to-Fork Week. The day following the dinner, the Farm-to-Fork festival is set-up on the main street leading from the Tower Bridge to the Capital building. The festival is open more broadly to the public and includes live music, prepared foods and fresh produce, lectures on various topics related to food, and other typical festival activities. The festival is free and has had up to 55,000 people in attendance. The reach and the impact of these events have been successful in bringing attention to the robust nature of Sacramento and the Central Valley’s roles in growing and producing food in California.

********

From “Their” Hands to “Ours”

This farm-to-fork “movement” crosses boundaries between commerce, boosterism, and social change in contradictory/uncomfortable ways. For instance, the issue of Sactown which included the above photo spread on the Tower Bridge Dinner also featured a story by Max Whittaker titled, “The Fruits of Their Labor,” which purports to shine light on the often overlooked farm laborers who pick “our” fruits and vegetables. This image of the “Farm-to-Fork Capital” in these pics is about crafting and showcasing a narrative which leaves out all the uncomfortable elements of food work.  While the author hopes to bring attention to farmworkers, the language used in the photo essay is patronizing, condescending, and ignorant of questions of ownership (who is the “our” the author identifies throughout the story) or histories of farmworker labor struggles.  

“Our newfound civic conversation about the ‘farm-to-fork’ movement has trained a well-deserved spotlight on our region’s chefs and farmers. But one essential link in that food chain gets overlooked in the public eye – the unsung efforts of our region’s farmworkers who, with quiet dedication and uncommon discipline, toil under the relentless sun to hand-pick our tomatoes, irrigate our fields and harvest our grapes. Herein lies a glimpse into the world of the hardworking men and women who are harvesting our heritage.[16]  

The essay opens with a full two-page photo of tomato vines and a man kneeling down to pick them. The man (identified as Raul Cordova) is a wearing a blue baseball cap, striped button-down work shirt, and blue jeans. He has heavy gloves on and shown intently looking at tomatoes. Raul Cordova works at Full Belly Farm[17] in Yolo County … harvesting produce to sell at a farmer’s market or included in one of the boxes delivered through their popular CSA program – Farm Fresh To You.[18]

The story also contains photos from the Terra d’Oro Burke Ranch[19] in Plymouth where the farm workers are harvesting grapes to become one of their signature wines. This worker’s got a messy job – standing directly in the stream of juicy bunches of grapes as they fly toward him off the conveyor belt – but he seems to be loving it. 

Whittaker describes how grapes are one of the last crops of the season picked by hand. Picking “fast and furiously”, Whittaker writes that workers can fill on “average about 90-125 [buckets] in four to five hours.” At $1.00 per bucket, these workers can earn roughly $18.00 to $25.00 an hour. More than the minimum wage, to be sure, but not a living wage in California.[20]  

On the next page of the photo essay, Whittaker follows an all-female crew working in Yuba City.  In the author’s description, the foreman (Mario Perez) acts as a middleman between the farmworkers and the labor contractor. He locates the workers, picks them up, and drives them to wherever they have been assigned to work. In this particular story, the farmworkers are actually picking up leftover irrigation piping to clear the field for planting. Whittaker writes: “…[I] could tell that picking up trash all day in a giant tomato field was definitely not their favorite task. It’s {sic} difficult work, bending over and over again. My back hurt just watching them.” Then when describing another team’s labor laying irrigation, Whittaker writes: “These guys made irrigation seem like an art form learned over multiple seasons” (91). While Whittaker recognizes the depths of their work, imagining them as a combination of laborers and artists absolves the author from reckoning with that labor as grueling, repetitive, not well paid, and precarious. In fact, the most egregious example of this narrative turn is in Whittaker’s description of farm worker Alma Perales:

Alma Perales is pouring a bucket of cherry tomatoes straight into their retail packaging. It kind of blew my mind that Alma would be the only person ever to touch these tomatoes before they got sold. To me, that really sums up the concept of ‘farm-to-fork.’ There’s not some long, crazy logistical chain between Alma’s hand and my plate – just a short truck drive to a farmers’ market. (93)

Whittaker’s photo essay is a powerful example of well-intentioned middle-class neoliberalism where exploitative market relations are cast as virtuous enterprises.[21]  For instance, he sums up the article by saying: “I was amazed at the level of dedication that I saw in all the farmworkers I met over the past year. I’ve done manual labor before and found it to be incredibly challenging. Raul and his fellow farm-workers had a Zen-like focus that I envy and admire.” Whittaker makes no mention of the way in which the labor wreaks havoc on their bodies and, as contract day laborers, they have few or no medical benefits to help them if they are injured. Indeed, the author misunderstands that the labor is grueling and is done not out of some space of desire, but most likely out of necessity. Admiring their “Zen-like focus” implies that their work equates to an exercise in mindfulness; rather than demanding physical labor that they perform every day.

These two stories (the top chefs and the farm workers) offer food work – being a chef and being a farm worker – as engaging and creative tasks. However, while the Chefs get to speak and define the community of workers they engage, the farm workers do not. An outsider who romanticizes their labor practices and rather than illuminate the inequalities built into the food system tells the farm workers’ stories, in pictures and in words.  The imagined connections between the production (farm) and consumption (fork), is in reality deeply hierarchical where the products cannot be consumed by laborers in the rarefied venues and events associated with the campaign. Alma Perales’ earnings picking and sorting tomatoes in an eight-hour day would barely purchase one ticket to the fancy fundraiser dinner on the Tower Bridge. In fact, Alma Perales’ income and working conditions are likely to render her and her family food insecure within this bountiful agricultural region.[22] Interestingly the 2021 promotional materials for the Tower Bridge Dinner included mention that some of the money raised supports the College Assistance Migrant Program at California State University in Sacramento. [23] This is an ironic sort of “award” for children of agricultural workers like Alma Perales and Raul Cordova, who have sacrificed their health and well-being in service to industrial agricultural complex.

Farm-to-Fork in Action

Just as Latino farmworkers are imagined as noble laborers, other people of color (and sometimes the children of the farm laborers) are often portrayed as the needy recipients of the information connected to Sacramento’s “Farm-to-Fork Capital”” campaign.[24] I have witnessed this sort of imagining on the ground in the work of the Food Literacy Center – whose mission is “to inspire kids to eat their vegetables.”[25] They “teach children in low-income elementary schools cooking, nutrition, gardening, and active play to improve our health, environment, and economy.”  As one of the critical cultural workers in Sacramento’s mainstream farm-to-fork movement, the Food Literacy Center hosts an annual Food Film Festival as a fundraiser for the nonprofit[26] and as part of its public facing work. In the spring of 2017, my then 9-year-old, daughter and I attended a screening of the film Sustainable[27] (2016). The screening took place in the Central Library Galleria space overlooking Cesar Chavez Park in Downtown Sacramento. The audience was, at first glance, quite diverse[28]. I was encouraged to see Chanowk Yisrael of Yisrael Family Urban Farm in the room, sitting near to the stage. The farm was featured in the 2015 ad campaign and in 2018 the Farmer’s Guild and the Community Alliance with Family Farms named them Farm Advocates of the Year.[29] Chanowk is also Slow Food Sacramento’s farm representative and board member at the non-profit’s global conference in Italy.[30] I was eager to hear and participate in a discussion of the film from various angles. However, as the evening progressed, I realized that the narrative running throughout the event was tied to a particular understanding of food politics.

For instance, in the lead up to the screening Amber Stott invited to the stage some “student chefs” who were participants in the Food Literacy Center’s school-based program. There were three of them: 13-year-old Matthew (White or Latino), 8-year-old Olivia (maybe Latina), and 7-year-old Jackie (Black). Each of the “student chefs” spoke about their experience with the Food Literacy Center and named their favorite vegetable. These young people were super cute and very earnest. However, their participation felt scripted and manipulative. I was dismayed with Stott’s use of the little brown kids as “demonstrations” of the effectiveness of the Food Literacy Center and as representatives of the “problem” made right. Indeed, much of the imaging associated with The Food Literacy Center features black and brown, smiling children happily eating carrots, broccoli, etc. [See IMAGES #14-16]

In that vein, before the screening began my daughter and I were walking around looking at the various booths and tables. We stopped at the Whole Foods Market table and I considered purchasing their “bag of local goodies” which was $25 and included beautifully packaged items like extra-virgin olive oil, a chocolate bar, Bloody Mary Mix, some heirloom flower seeds.  As I stood there pondering this, one of the Food Literacy women came up to us – a young woman, perhaps Latina, with short dark hair. She asks my daughter if she is one of the “student chefs.” Already bristling, I jumped in and said, “Nope. But she is a chef in our house.” The young woman says, “Oh, really?!” and then asks my daughter, “What’s your favorite thing to cook?” She responds that she loves to bake bread. The young woman was visibly surprised; perhaps it was not the answer she expected to hear. Nevertheless, without too much hesitation, she reaches into the basket of local goodies and comes up with a small root vegetable. She asks my daughter, “Do you know what this is?” My then 8-year old daughter, who is usually not shy, said in a low voice, “a radish.” The young woman on point in her script, belted out without really hearing her answer, and says, “It’s a radish!” My daughter just shakes her head in the affirmative. Then I interject, “Do y’all grow radishes in your school garden?” My daughter shakes her head “no,” looking embarrassed by the woman’s query and my obvious displeasure with the exchange. However, The FLC advocate does not pick-up on the fact that my daughter already knew about radishes, has experienced growing stuff, and does not need to be “educated” about eating her veggies. The Food Literacy Center advocate simply launches into a bunch of “fun facts” about radishes.

Moving beyond my personal irritation with this scenario, I understand it as part of a system of racial coding. The subtle and invasive assumption that Black people (and Black food) are somehow already deficient or abject.[31] Stott’s work with the Food Literacy Center has been quite successful and she, as Founder & Chief Food Genius, has played a central role in crafting the images of the “needy” side of the farm-to-fork.  Stott has also been instrumental in defining “farm-to-fork” in a variety of local events and publications (Edible Sacramento, Sacramento Magazine, and Sactown Magazine, TEDx Sacramento, Sacramento Food Film Festival), as well as regionally and beyond the U.S.  She opines: “No matter where I go or who I speak with, the question of farm to fork boils down to two important elements beyond the obvious ‘buy local’ mantra: education and intentionality.”[32] For Stott it is simple: know where your food comes from and commit to eating locally and seasonally.

She traces the roots of Sacramento’s contemporary efforts to the U.S. “back-to-the-land movement” of the 1970s and Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley, California; arguing that it is both a lifestyle and a movement. And it is actually in that designation – both movement and lifestyle – where she and others posit their work as advocates for social change through educating others to lead (and desire to lead) a particular sort of lifestyle. The classist and racist dimensions of the project of educating some of those others (needy, “food desert” inhabitants) becomes one of the platforms through which the “farm-to-fork” lifestyle gets funded and authenticated by well-heeled donors, federal, state and local government funding for nonprofits, etc.

As a political force in the local terrain, Stott has had the power to shape the discourse around sustainability, food, and hunger.[33] However, the narrative (and imagery) she and others elevate continues to hinge on poor folks (Black and brown, but not always) as recipients and middle- and upper-class folks (white, but not always) in the roles of leaders, pioneers, risk-takers, food geniuses, etc.  The Food Literacy Center operates within this political spectrum by de-fanging the possibilities of collective social movement around the need for systemic changes in our food system.[34] They do so by focusing on such things as lifestyle, personal/individual choice, and specific prescriptions for what constitutes good eating rather than exploring the multiple and contradictory politics of food in our society. As Julie Guthman writes:

[I]t may well be that the focus of activism should shift away from the particularities of food and towards the injustices that underlie disparities in food access. Activists might pay more attention to projects considered much more difficult in the current political climate: eliminating redlining, investing in urban renewal [not gentrification], expanding entitlement programs, obtaining living wages, along with eliminating toxins from and improving the quality of the mainstream food supply. The question, then, is what kind of cultural politics might facilitate this shift.[35]

Unfortunately, opportunities to engage in dialogue and debate across different expressions within a much broader food justice movement have not been evident in Sacramento’s mainstream Farm-to-Fork Capital efforts.

For instance, when we walked into the Sustainable screening and I noticed Chanowk Yisrael of Yisrael Family Urban Farm, I assumed that he would be on the panel discussing the film and/or the implications for urban farmers in Sacramento. However, he was not on the stage during the discussion and, in fact, left before the screening was complete. I do not know the circumstances surrounding his departure, but I felt keenly the missed opportunity to hear him speak about local food matters from a wholly different perspective. The farm-to-fork messaging (visually through advertisements or narratively in the magazine stories) is geared toward a particular audience and not articulated as connected to critical explorations of small-scale urban farming or home gardens in low-income or working class communities, food insecurity, poverty, farm workers’ plight, or other socio-economic issues. Attempts to foster public conversations across these ideas does not happen.

This was also evident at the 2017 Farm-to-Fork Festival where demos/presentations put on by the Food Literacy Center (Amber Stott) and the Juneteenth Chefs Collaborative (Chef Andrea O’Neal) occurred back-to-back on the same stage, but no conversation between the women was brokered.[36]  For Stott’s presentation, she did what she described as a “simple” recipe while delivering her usual script about the 40% obesity rate in Sacramento.[37] During her demo of Grilled Corn with Chili and Lime, Stott talked about what her organization does and how they have attempted to tackle the problem of obesity in low-income neighborhoods/schools. She also talked about how eating fresh corn reminds her of growing up in the Midwest where corn was very plentiful in the summer months.  Yet, she made no mention of how this particular recipe draws quite obviously from the well-known elote or Mexican Street Corn that is prevalent within Latino communities throughout Sacramento. At one point during her presentation, her mentor and Food Literacy Center Board Member, Elise Bauer, was invited to the stage by the reporter emcee to assist. Once on stage, Bauer and Stott talked more about making “simple recipes” that are accessible for families (especially moms) to use daily.[38] After Stott and Bauer leave the stage, Chef Andrea O’Neal one of the chefs featured in the Farm-to-Fork Capital ad campaign (see IMAGE #1), takes the stage. [39]  There is no discussion or communication between O’Neal and the Stott-Bauer team, almost as if they did not know each other.

Chef O’Neal’s work speaks of an approach to food work that invokes food as a catalyst for change rather than a destination. She described how, in the past eight years she has worked in various capacities with food. Chef Andrea has cooked at My Sister’s Café[40]and My Sister’s House[41], as well as offering cooking classes through the Juneteenth Chefs Collaborative in Elk Grove (a suburb of Sacramento).[42] At the time of this presentation, she was Cooking Chef at UC Davis Health System’s Institute for Population Health Improvement.[43] Chef Andrea prepared Coho salmon with a homemade blueberry ketchup while offering tidbits about her own journey through food work and the work of the Juneteenth Chefs Collaborative. She gave tips about food and health – e.g., that canola oil is not as healthy as we think – but also talked about the kinds of advocacy work she does and encourages others to get involved. She tells us …

My Sister’s Café opened about four years ago.  It is specific for women of Asian descent.  It helps get them back into job mode; their children back into schooling; women who have been abused, sex trafficked, drug addicted―It’s just a really good program. I was their Chef for about 4 years before opening up the restaurant and then another 2 years after that. It is a good program, if you guys [sic] have time to volunteer there, please do so.[44]

In reflecting on the two presentations, it would have been engaging and informative if there had been some interaction between Amber Stott and Chef Andrea O’Neal … perhaps giving them a platform to draw connections between their work with food and “at-risk” populations.[45]

Chef Andrea talked about empowerment of the women they work with via My Sister’s House emphasizing that the goal is to get the women on their feet. For her, food (especially entrepreneurial food work) is a tool toward stability/empowerment amongst some of the most vulnerable peoples there are – immigrant women and women of color escaping entrapment, sexual and physical violence. My Sister’s Café serves as a funding source for My Sister’s House and a space where women can gain skills they might use to seek employment. In comparison, Stott harkened back to her days growing up in the Midwest and her understanding of what constitutes a “good” and “healthy” relationship with food. What Stott’s narrative misses completely is that her experience with food is likely from a place not shaped by racism, poverty, or trauma. Nevertheless, Stott’s privilege and social capital have afforded her the opportunity to grow a non-profit that taps into the middle and upper-middle class foodie’s desire to do good works. [See IMAGES #14-16]

The work of the farm-to-fork advertisements and related events is about celebrating the bounty of the region and the innovative ways that chefs, vintners, brew masters, organic farmers and others are collaborating to create spaces and events that engage those who have means to do so. As Stott writes, “We are the lucky ones who live closest to [the agricultural bounty], who have the strongest ability to intentionally implement a farm-to-fork lifestyle, and hopefully, educate ourselves deeply on what a truly sustainable food system looks like not just in restaurants and on farms, but in school cafeterias, food banks and at home in our own backyards.”[46] I argue, however, that the Food Literacy Center’s inclusion within the imagery connected to Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign is just as problematic as the shadowy inclusion of The Juneteenth Black Chefs Collaborative and the Yisrael Family Urban Farm.  Restaurants, school cafeterias, food banks, and “our” homes and backyards may all be connected to and/or resistive of the industrial agricultural food system, but equally yoked within that system we are not.

For instance, the Food Literacy Center’s efforts to counter the “obesity crisis” amongst low-income children in Sacramento with a two-pronged approach of teaching children to love eating vegetables like broccoli and remaking the school lunch program by building a centralized kitchen where healthful foods are prepared and disseminated to 80 schools within the district, feels like a step forward.[47] Who would not want freshly prepared meals to replace reliance on industrialized and processed foods for children, particularly those most vulnerable to hunger and food insecurity? However, this sort of intervention continues historical efforts to shape bodies to fit within mainstream ideals of the good citizen.[48] The Food Literacy Center and the new Central Kitchen are manifestations of biopower – “forms of power aimed at controlling life itself through the management and administration of a populations’ health.”[49]

The US school food system has undergone significant transformations since its inception at the beginning of the twentieth century. Its development over time clearly illustrates biopower mechanisms in action. In the school luunch program, truth discourses promoted by experts, social reformers, and child advocates justify collective interventions into the eating practices of children. Through the school lunch program, children are taught self-discipline by emulating lunchroom eating norms and social practices in the space of the school.[50] 

The “truth discourses” embedded in the Sacramento Farm-to-Fork Campaign about the benefits of eating locally, seasonally, and with intention permeate the language of the Food Literacy Center. The development of the Central Kitchen is part of the “collective intervention” which will imbed knowledge about how and what to eat in the minds of the schoolchildren. Those “truth discourses” say nothing about the inequalities within school, work, and in communities grappling with the impacts of historical disinvestment and contemporary gentrification. Moreover, until recently, they did not address cultural relevant foods or historically different foodways.

Conclusions: Where do we go from here?: Our Farm, Our Fork, Our Community[51]

 At the same time that images of Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Campaign appeared, Chanowk and Judith Yisrael and their urban farm were featured in less glossy publications like the Sacramento News & Review,  INSIDE, and Edible Sacramento, as well as the local business magazine Comstock’s: Business Insight for the Capital Region.[52] The images and stories of the Yisrael Family Urban Farm in these publications reveal layered reasons behind the farm’s beginning. [53] Shaped by personal and familial struggles with cancer and other health ailments, coupled with the realities of supporting a large family while working and commuting long distances to corporate jobs each day, Chanowk and Judith took what was a large residential lot with fruit trees and a small garden and grew it into a total farming enterprise.           

The Yisrael Family Urban Farm’s motto, “Transforming the HOOD for G.O.O.D (Growing Our Own Destiny),” makes clear that their mission includes but goes beyond addressing health/diet-related illness. They seek to use “urban agriculture as a tool for community engagement, empowerment and employment.”[54] In this way, their work extends from that of Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Cooperative (circa 1967) and its critical intervention in the struggle for Civil Rights in Mississippi.[55] We might also understand Chanowk and Judith’s farm as a contemporary manifestation of the work of the Black Panther Party’s Free Breakfast Program.[56]  As Judith Yisrael says:

I care about changing the food system because it’s a way to confront and change the inequities which have been present in the United States since its inception.[57]

Since breaking ground on the farm in 2008 and then leaving their corporate jobs several years later, Chanowk and Judith have been focused on creating a space centered on sustainability. Sustainability of self, family, the land and community as interconnected entities.

With 40 fruit trees, 11 free-range chickens, a stocked greenhouse, a busy honeybee hive and endless varieties of fruits and vegetables, Chanowk dares visitors to name what the family doesn’t grow—because the possibilities on this farm are endless. […] If there is one family that embodies the farm-to-fork lifestyle in Sacramento, it’s [sic] the Yisraels. Farming is their everyday way of life. It’s [sic] not a clever hashtag or newfound diet. It’s [sic] simply how they eat, how they bond, how they come together: around food.[58]

Their work has ranged from hosting farm-to-fork events on their farm where guests eat home cooked, plant-based meals built on ingredients from their farm; to working with other urban farmers to pass the Sacramento Urban Agriculture Ordinance that allows residents to sell produce grown on their residential plots (vacant or inhabited)[59]; to teaching plant-based cooking classes at the Sacramento Food Bank (located in North Oak Park); to encouraging Black and Brown youth to become a part of the G team. While the significance of their work within the space of Oak Park deserves an in depth documentation and study beyond the scope of this essay, it is clear that in terms of the Sacramento Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign images including the Yisrael Family Urban Farm needed greater context to make them visible to the broader public. Efforts to contextualize HOW their work engages farm-to-fork from a different perspective would allow people not likely to frequent the high end restaurants, Tower Bridge Dinner, or even the Farm-to-Fork Festival to get a glimpse into the issues which undergird experiences of food insecurity, lack of good employment options within urban communities, make connections between the consumption of processed foods and poor health, all within the context of radical self-care.[60] The twin reckonings of 2020 – the Covid-19 pandemic and the increasing visibility of the BLACK LIVES MATTER movement for social justice – illuminate the necessity to understand our fates as interconnected and to lay bare the histories of disenfranchisement that have long roots.

In early June 2020, during the social unrest after the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, Guys on the Grid, took an aerial photograph of the grassy median leading from the Tower Bridge to the Sacramento Capitol building where BLACK LIVES MATTER had been painted in all caps with bold, black paint on the grassy median.[61] This image came across my Facebook feed on June 6, 2020 with a reflection written by Devin Bruce focusing on the politics of the space:  

Do you know that right where “Black Lives Matter” is painted on the dead grass there on Capitol [Blvd] there used to be a vibrant neighborhood of Black (and Japanese) owned homes and businesses known as the ‘West End’? It was a full community of people and included homes, schools, markets and jazz clubs where the likes of Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday would go and perform at after hours when they were in town. But – it was the first thing you saw when crossing the Tower Bridge and entering Sacramento proper and the white people didn’t like that. The white people said that it was ‘blighted’ and needed to be redeveloped – so they forced all of the Black and Japanese people to move as they tore down the buildings and built a ‘grand entrance’ to the city.[…] They relocated everyone to the Southside Park area but then wanted to build Hwy 50 [in that location] […] At this point, redlining was all the rage so they designated Oak Park for the Black people and the Japanese were pushed farther south of the city.[62]

In pre-pandemic and pre-BLM times, this location served as the space for the annual Farm-to-Fork Festival. As I have discussed in this essay, issues of privilege, biopower, or food justice were not a part of the conversation in the mainstream public. My examination of Sacramento’s Farm-to-Fork Capital campaign mirrors the findings of Broad’s study in Los Angeles, about which he writes:

In popular media, the nutritional, environmental, and social problems of the food system were often portrayed as having utterly simple, conflict-free solutions, generally involving nothing more than individual consumer choices and a little bit of ‘growing your own.’ If we could simply get the general public to understand the importance of healthy eating, pop culture advocates suggested, perhaps by having young boys and girls taste a tomato grown in their own school garden or by opening a community farmers’ market, we would all be well on our way toward health and sustainability. […] Unfortunately, missing from the design, deployment, and management of many of the alternative food initiatives I observed was any recognition that inequity in the food system was centrally linked to histories of racial and economic discrimination.  […] Alternative food initiatives tended to benefit mostly white, economically secure, and already healthy consumers. Low-income communities of color, by contrast, were too often treated as subjects to be taught the ‘right way to eat,’ while issues of systematic injustice in the labor force and other barriers to community health were downplayed or ignored.[63]

Perhaps, times are changing. For instance, the racial reckoning of 2020 seems to have made an impression on the Food Literacy Center’s approach to (or at least public narrative about) the food work they do, as evidenced in a March 24, 2021 email with the subject line: “Subject: 🍎 Race, Equity, Inclusion, and Our Kids 🍎” sent to those on their listserve:

Food Literacy Center Newsletter (March 24, 2021)

This “Weekly Update” was the first newsletter I received from the Food Literacy Center that explicitly discussed race, equity and inclusion issues in relation to their mission with this level of depth.[64] I hope that it is a step forward and is not simply a well-crafted statement for this moment of heightened awareness. What I have come to see during the racial reckoning that was 2020 (building on countless years before that) is the hard work of recognizing and undoing white privilege is an ongoing, complicated endeavor that needs everyone to engage – especially those who benefit most from the system of inequities. Perhaps the Food Literacy Center and the mainstream farm, restaurant, food, and beverage industries they engage with are ready to do that work. Especially as the precarity long-experienced by Black and Brown working-class folks has been amplified as the shutdowns of businesses during the Covid-19 pandemic hit the food and restaurant industry particularly hard.

In fact, just as the language of the Food Literacy Center has shifted, so too has the advertising leading up to the 2021 Tower Bridge Dinner. The dinner was not held in 2020 due to the pandemic and, as we know, many restaurants have struggled to remain open. Restaurant workers have seen their jobs vanish overnight. Others, who maintained their jobs, were categorized as essential workers and thus engaged in public facing work before vaccinations became available. Thereby putting themselves and their families at risk of infection. The Farm-to-Fork Capital website now includes short videos of tearful restaurant owners thanking the public for continuing to patronize their establishments through the pandemic. In addition, others talk of the importance of continuing the ethos of the Tower Bridge Dinner as a socially-distant event where folks could pick-up farm-to-table inspired meals at select restaurants. There was not, of course, the big Farm-to-Fork Festival on Capital Avenue between the Tower Bridge and the Capital Building.

In 2021, the Tower Bridge Dinner happened (tickets sold out), but the chefs at the center of the event were not just the key, high-end restaurateurs of years past but a team of chefs of color (Latino and Asian) and women working in a variety of food spaces – led by UC Davis Health System’s Executive Chef Santana Diaz.[65] On August 10, 2021, it was announced that Visit Sacramento, the entity that oversees all of the Farm-to-Fork Capital events has created a new position – Chief of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and moved its chief marketing officer, African American Sonya Bradley, into the position.

While all of the developments are potentially positive. Perhaps they are part of a process of critically thinking about what the Farm-to-Fork Capitol might do to make an impact on the food system locally, within California, nationally, and perhaps globally. My exploration in this essay points to the necessity of building or engaging a collective of folks whose work is about creating the spaces of dialogue needed to uncover the biases and misinformation presented as truth. We must foreground the need to call our leaders (self-proclaimed, selected, and elected) to a greater sense of accountability – not to capitalistic notions of progress – but to the people whose lives are deeply impacted everyday by the issues glibly presented in various media outlets. As Stuart Hall spent his life’s work unpacking and exploring the “politics of representation,” we continue to be in a struggle over meaning.[66]


Notes:

[1] The Pocket-Greenhaven area of Sacramento is located south of the downtown core, east of the Sacramento River. It is a largely middle and upper-middle class community with significant numbers of residents of African American (approximately 18%) and Asian American (approximately 21%) descent.

[2] “Known as the nation’s farm-to-fork capital, the Sacramento area is home to nearly 8,000 acres of boutique farmland and boasts the largest certified farmers market in California” (https://www.visitcalifornia.com/attraction/farm-fork-capital#:~:text=Top%20Sacramento%20Restaurants,-Spotlight%3A%20Sacramento&text=Known%20as%20the%20nation’s%20farm,certified%20farmers%20market%20in%20California.) Last accessed 6/8/2020

[3] My search details are included in the parenthesis after their names.

[4] Jhally 2015, page 247.

[5] “As a division of Visit Sacramento, a 501(c)(6), the Farm-to-Fork program is guided by Visit Sacramento’s dedicated volunteer board. The board represents all aspects of the tourism and hospitality industries’ most important stakeholders, including lodging, meeting facilities, attractions, restaurants, arts and culture, government, retail, sports and transportation.” Source: https://www.farmtofork.com/. Last Accessed 6/16/20. See also: https://ca.meetingsmags.com/sacramento-elevates-its-profile-farm-fork-campaign. Last Accessed 8/28/21.

[6] In 2000, the Los Angeles Lakers’ Head Coach Phil Jackson dubbed Sacramento a “cow town” when the Sacramento Kings advanced to the NBA Playoffs Western Finals and the team’s fans often rang cowbells during the games. “Jackson called Sacramento a “cow town” and said Kings fans were “semi-civilized” and “maybe redneck in some form or fashion.”” (David Dupree, “California dreamin’ for Western final” USA Today, May 17, 2002.)

[7] “Visit Sacramento, the tourism organization that sponsors the wildly successful farm-to-fork events in September says there are many cities that claim to be the “City of Trees” around the world and even locally. But Sacramento is now known around the world for popularizing a new food concept.” See: Lonnie Wong, “Water Tower No Longer Reads ‘Welcome to Sacramento, City of Trees’” Fox 40 Local News, March 9, 2017. https://fox40.com/news/local-news/water-tower-no-longer-reads-welcome-to-sacramento-city-of-trees/ Last accessed: 7/7/2021.

[8] The artist who sculpted the piece, Lisa Reinertson, said “Many of the people in the sculpture are based on actual people who were involved in the Farmworkers’ Movement. For example, there is a depiction of Dolores Huerta holding a “Huelga” sign. Cesar Chavez’s brother and daughter are also depicted on the “mural” side, as is Robert Kennedy, breaking fast with Cesar. I also visited La Paz (UFW Headquarters) in the process of doing research for the sculpture, so the side that has the marchers has many people that were either on the March from Delano to Sacramento, or I may have used photos I took of people at La Paz that would have been the right age at that time. (For example, one of Cesar Chavez’ daughter-in-law and grandsons.) I had a few people pose for me that asked to remain unnamed, but who also had been connected to the UFW. Also, grape strike leader Larry ltliong, is depicted in the march with another Filipino woman who was on the march. Some of the people are from photographs from the era of the UFW movement. My own mother was on the organizing end of the march in Sacramento. She was both a Civil Rights and Peace activist. She and her friend volunteered to find accommodations for the marchers as they arrived in the city. Our family joined in on some of the march, walking up Hwy 99, and the final march to the State Capitol. I was only 11 at the time but was very moved by the experience. I was able to witness Cesar Chavez speak, both at a local church the night before the march on the Capitol and also at the Capitol. The injustice of the plight of the farmworkers struck me deeply, and being able to leave a visible legacy and reminder of the struggles and successes of the Farmworkers’ Movement felt very important to me, and was an honor to be able to do as a sculptor.” Personal correspondence May, 12, 2017.

[9] In 1962 Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Gilbert Padilla (and others) began the United Farmworkers of America and eventually successfully unionized several industries (ufw.org/about-us/our-vision). On the plaza opposite where Mayor Johnson made the announcement, is a statue representing the UFW movement featuring images of Chavez, Huerta, and Padilla along with Larry Itliong, the leader of the Filipino farmworkers’ movement. Itliong had urged Chavez years before the formation of UFW, to join him and his constituency to push for worker protections within the table grape growing industry. See Jill Cowan, “A leader of Farmworkers and Filipino Place in American History” New York Times October 21, 2019 and Lisa Morehouse, “Grapes of Wrath: The Forgotten Filipinos Who Led a Farm Worker Revolution” NPR The Salt, September 19, 2015.; Matthew Garcia, From the Jaws of Victory: The Triumph and Tragedy of Cesar Chavez and the Farm Worker Movement. UC Press, 2014.

[10] Green, 11/1/2012

[11] Erica Maria Cheung’s “Dudes of Food.” MA Thesis, UC Irvine, 2016.

[12] Biba Caggiano passed away in August 2019, See: https://www.sacbee.com/news/local/obituaries/article232620167.html.

[13] Bizjack, page 83; Mother restaurant abruptly closed its doors in January 2020. See:  https://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2020/01/02/mother-restaurant-sacramento-closes/

[14] After a hiatus in 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, The Tower Bridge Gala returned in 2021 featuring a lineup of local chefs with both Latina/o and Asian representation. https://www.farmtofork.com/events/the-tower-bridge-dinner/. During the pandemic year, there was an alternative “Tower Bridge Dinner to Go” which offered foods directly to customers. This alternative was also offered in 2021. https://www.farmtofork.com/tower-bridge-dinner-to-go/.

[15] https://fox40.com/news/farm-to-fork-kicks-off-with-tower-bridge-cattle-drive/.

[16] Page 89, bold added by author.

[17] http://fullbellyfarm.com/. Full Belly Farm has 80 different crops that require to picking by hand – to preserve the fruit/nuts, etc. at their peak of ripeness – a premium in the farm-to-fork marketplace (page 92).

[18] https://www.farmfreshtoyou.com/

[19] https://www.terradorowinery.com/index.cfm? Located in the wildly popular Amador County wine region.

[20] https://livingwage.mit.edu/states/06

[21] George Monbiot, “Neoliberalism—the ideology at the root of all our problems” The Guardian [Economics], April 15-2016. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot

[22] See: Sandy Brown and Christy Getz, “Farmworker Food Insecurity and the Production of Hunger in California” Chapter 6 in Cultivating Food Justice: Race, Class, and Sustainability edited by Alison Hope Alkon and Julian Agyeman (The MIT Press, 2011). One of the epitaphs on the Cesar Chavez Memorial: “Capital and labor together produce the fruits of the land, but what really counts is labor. The human beings who torture their bodies, sacrifice their youth and numb their spirits to produce this great agricultural wealth. A wealth so vast that it feeds all of America and much of the world. And yet the men, women and children who are the flesh and blood of this production often do not have enough to feed themselves.” Cesar Chavez, 1979, Eulogy for slain lettuce strikers in the Imperial Valley.

[23] https://www.sacbee.com/food-drink/article164667337.html. Last Accessed: 8/28/21

[24] Most of the farmworkers in California are Mexican or of Mexican descent, many (65%) are without documents and 1/3 are women. See https://farmworkerfamily.org/information. Last Accessed 8/31/21.

[25] https://www.foodliteracycenter.org/. During the uprisings of 2020, the practice of companies posting statements of solidarity around Black Lives Matter – FLC posted the following on their website: “When we commit to protecting kids’ health with vegetables, we also stand up for their lives. Black lives matter. We stand with our Black community members to call out injustice and to take action. Food literacy is food justice.” Last accessed June 30, 2020.

[26] Stott opened the event (after the Friends of the Library spokesperson spoke) and spent a good deal of time talking about the work of the Food Literacy Center. In general, I was taken with how she talked about the Food Literacy Center using language that I would consider that of a for profit enterprise – specifically, that their model was “scalable” and “gets results.” It was unclear to me what the results were – 1) a reduction in the prevalence of childhood obesity? Or 2) the growth of the Food Literacy Center, servicing one school in its beginnings in 2012 and now in nine schools in 2017? In 2021, the Food Literacy Center is leading the opening of a Central Kitchen to serve the Sacramento City’s public schools hot lunches.

[27] See sustainablefoodfilm.com and foodliteracycenter.org/film-festival-event/sold-out-sustainable-0  

[28] The folks who were at the screening, primarily white and older, but with smatterings of others represented: young millennials (tattooed), young families (with infants), a few older Black folks; a fair number of folks who looked Asian (mostly young). 

[29] https://m.facebook.com/yisraelfarm/photos/every-year-the-the-farmers-guild-gives-food-and-farm-related-awards-in-7-categor/1646392858749213/

[30] https://www.slowfoodsacramento.org/board-members; https://www.comstocksmag.com/qa/chanowk-yisrael-talks-about-changing-hood-good

[31] See Psyche Williams-Forson’s forthcoming Eating While Black: Food Shaming and Race in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, August 16, 2022). See also: Vivian Nun Halloran’s, “Eating in Public: As Performance of Assimilation, Diaspora, or Ethnic Belonging in her The Immigrant Kitchen: Food, Ethnicity, and Diaspora (Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2016); pages 41-63.

[32] Stott, “Farm-to-Fork Defined”, Edible Sacramento[32], September/October 2015, page 10)

[33] Amber K. Stott is the Founding Executive Director of the California Food Literacy Center and has been named a Food Revolution Hero by the Jamie Oliver Food Foundation. Stott was instrumental in getting legislation passed to designate September as Food Literacy Month in California. (http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201120120ACR161. Recently, Stott’s work has also been instrumental in developing a Central Kitchen within the Sacramento Unified School District. The kitchen, slated to open and begin providing meals to schools in fall 2020. See: https://www.scusd.edu/central-kitchen and https://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2017/06/06/sacramento-schools-farm-to-fork/.

[34] See: Dylan Rodríguez, “Navigating Neoliberalism in the Academy, Nonprofits, and Beyond: The Political Logic of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex.” The Scholar & Feminist Online Issue 13.2 | Spring 2016 (https://sfonline.barnard.edu/navigating-neoliberalism-in-the-academy-nonprofits-and-beyond/paul-kivel-social-service-or-social-change/) and Sidra Morgan-Montoya, “Nonprofit Industrial Complex 101: A primer on how it upholds inequity and flattens resistance.”  Community Centric Fundraising, August 10, 2020 (https://communitycentricfundraising.org/2020/08/10/nonprofit-industrial-complex-101-a-primer-on-how-it-upholds-inequity-and-flattens-resistance/).

[35]“Bringing good food to others: investigating the subjects of alternative food practice.” Cultural Geographies, Volume 15, 2008; 431-457.

[36] They were on the Visit Sacramento Demo Stage at 2:00 p.m. and 3:00 p.m. respectively.

[37] The Food Literacy Center uses compelling photos of “at risk” risk kids and narratives of need to substantiate its mission. The 40% obesity rate in Sacramento is a statistic that has a certain purchase and is used liberally. See: https://www.foodliteracycenter.org/broccoli-beet-year/holiday-fund-school-drive

[38] As far as I have been able to ascertain, neither Stott nor Bauer have children of her own. Their food work is shaped by their memories of cooking and eating in their own families, as Stott mentions in the grilled corn demonstration and as Bauer describes on her website. See: http://www.simplyrecipes.com. Last Accessed 6/17/2020.

[39] https://www.facebook.com/chefamor.alwaysfresh

[40] http://www.mysisterscafe.org/

[41] http://www.my-sisters-house.org/

[42] http://goharvest.org/

[43] The Institute for Population Health Improvement (IPHI) was founded in 2011 and engaged in partnerships/collaborations with various government entities and nonprofits to work toward better health outcomes (and reduced health costs). See: Kenneth W. Kizer, “Improving Population Health through Clinical-Community Collaboration: A Case Study of a Collaboration between State Government and an Academic Health System,” Chapter 9 in Public Health Leadership: Strategies for Innovations in Population Health and Social Determinants, edited by Richard F. Callahan and Dru Bhattacharya (Routledge, 2017). The IPHI ceased to exist when in 2019, the founding director Dr. Kenneth Kizer, left UC Davis to join Atlas Research as Chief Healthcare Transformation Officer and Senior Executive Vice President (https://www.atlasresearch.us/news/leading-health-care-reformer-dr-ken-kizer-joins-atlas-research).

[44] Both Stott and O’Neal’s sessions were audio recorded and then transcribed.

[45] At the 2015 Festival, there was a panel discussion (“The Mission of the Farm-to-Fork”) that featured folks associated with Food Literacy Center, Soil Born Farms, and the Center for Land-Based Learning. I wondered then why there were no representatives from the Juneteenth Black Chefs Collaborative, R. Kelley Farms, or the Yisrael Family Urban Farm on the panel.  

[46] Stott, “Farm-to-Fork Defined” page 41.

[47] https://thecentralkitchen.org/. Last accessed: 8/31/21. When my daughter was a student in a public charter school connected to Sacramento Unified School District, a few parents met to organize a “take back our school lunch” effort. Our school site, built in the 1950s, had a full kitchen that had been used to prepare lunches for the students who attended that school. During our time at the school, the lunches were brought in and heated up in industrial microwaves (bypassing the industrial ranges and ovens). Some fresh produce was available on the salad bar (which was decked out with beautiful “farm-to-fork” signage), but my daughter informed me that it mostly consisted of wilted salad greens, carrots, broccoli and food service sized ranch dressing. Our school also had a school garden that was a popular after school activity. However, the produce was not grown in sufficient quantity to supplement the cafeteria salad bar and there were restrictions around utilizing it in that way. We gave up on our efforts and more parents decided to forego hot lunch and pack lunches. When I approached the Food Literacy Center table at one of the Farm-To-Fork Festivals, I was told that because our school was not located in a low-income community and did not service a population with a significant number on the free-and-reduced lunch program, we were not eligible to become a Food Literacy Center site.

[48] See Sarah E. Dempsey and Kristina E. Gibson’s “Food, Biopower, and the Child’s Body as a Scale of Intervention,” Chapter 14 in Food & Place: A Critical Exploration edited by Pascale Joassart-Marcelli and Fernando J. Bosco (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).

[49] Dempsey and Gibson, page 255. These authors are utilizing Foucault’s theory of biopower as a tool for understanding how “the child’s body functions as a highly contested scale of intervention into food and eating practices.”

[50] Dempsey and Gibson, page 257. See also Nun Halloran, note #31.

[51] Martin Luther King, Where Do We Go From Here?: Chaos or Community. Beacon Press, 2010.

[52] The first two publications are newspapers that are freely available in kiosks located around the city. Edible Sacramento is a free magazine often available at the Natural Foods Co-op while COMSTOCK’s is a magazine available for purchase at local newsstands and grocery stores.

[53] Sena Christian, “Grow Your Own Way.” COMSTOCK’S, Volume 29, Number 9 (September 2017), pages 40-51; Amber Stott, “Emerging Food Leaders: 5 People to Watch” Edible Sacramento, March/April 2016, pages 11-15; Janelle Bitker, “No Lawn. No Pool. Hello, Urban Farm: Sacramento Agriculturalists Turn Their Yards Into Gardens to Feed the City,” Sacramento News & Review Volume 27, Issue 23, 9/24/2015, pages 17-19; Gwen Schoen, “Urban Farmer: He Grows Both Food and Community in South Oak Park” Inside: Pocket, Greenhaven, South Pocket, Little Pocket June 2015, pages 30-31; Natasha Von Kaenel, “Cultivating Urban Ag in Sacramento County,” Sacramento News & Review March 10, 2016, page 24.

[54] https://www.yisraelfamilyfarm.net/

[55] See Monica M. White, “A Pig and a Garden: Fannie Lou Hamer’s Freedom Farm Collective” in her Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement (UNC Press, 2018), pages 65-87.

[56] See Raj Patel, “Survival Pending Revolution: What the Black Panthers Can Teach the U.S. Food Movement.” Chapter 7 in Food Movements Unit! Strategies to Transform Our Food Systems edited by Eric Holtz-Giménez (Oakland, CA: Food First Books, 2011). See also Monica White, “Black Farmers, Agriculture, and Resistance,” in her Freedom Farmers: Agricultural Resistance and the Black Freedom Movement (UNC Press, 2018); Analena Hope Hassberg, “Nurturing the Revolution: The Black Panther Party and the Early Seeds of the Food Justice Movement,” in Black Food Matters: Racial Justice in the Wake of Food Justice edited by Hanna Garth and Ashanté M. Reese(University of Minnesota Press, 2020); and Vivian Nun Halloran, “After Forty Acres: Food Security, Urban Agriculture, and Black Food Citizenship” in Dethroning the Deceitful Pork Chop: Rethinking African American Foodways from Slavery to Obama edited by Jennifer Jensen Wallach (The University of Arkansas Press, 2015).

[57] Amber Stott’s article, “Emerging  Food Leaders: 5 People to Watch” (Edible Sacramento March/April 2016, pages 11-15) features Elaine Lander (Program Officer, Food Literacy Center), Matt Read (Lawyer & Community Activist), Judith Yisrael (Co-Founder, The Yisrael Family Urban Farm), Rubie Simonsen (Program Officer, WAYUP Sacramento), and Sara Bernal (West Sacramento Urban Farm Program Coordinator, Center for Land-Based Learning).

[58] Steph Rodriguez, “Growing Prospects on the Yisrael Family Farm,” Edible Sacramento, March/April 2016, page 29.

[59] Although outside of the scope of this essay, it is important to note that repurposing empty lots into urban farms in communities seen as “blighted” often aids in the processes of gentrification and displacement of long-time lower-income residents from urban communities. White led urban gardens can unintentionally play a role in creating “white food spaces” that do not engage local residents of color. See: Pascale Joassart-Marcelli and Fernando J. Bosco, “Food and Gentrification: How Foodies are Transforming Urban Neighborhoods” Chapter 8 in their edited volume Food & Place: A Critical Exploration (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) and Margaret Marietta Ramírez, “The Elusive Inclusive: Black Food Geographies and Racialized Food Spaces” Antipode Volume 47, Number 3, 2015: pages 748-769.

[60] I am referencing here Audre Lorde’s notion of radical self-care in her collection of essays, A Burst of Light: and Other Essays (New York: Firebrand Books, 1988), written while she was battling an aggressive form of breast cancer. Lorde understood self-care as an integral part of care of Black community in the face of white supremacy, not the individualized (and monetized) form of self-care popularly touted today. See: Kathleen Newman-Bremang “Reclaiming Audre Lorde’s Radical Self Care” Refinery 29 May 28, 2021 (https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/2021/05/10493153/reclaiming-self-care-audre-lorde-black-women-community-care); Sarah Taylor, “Self-Care, Audre Lorde and Black Radical Activism” Dissolving Margins July 13, 2020 (https://www.dissolvingmargins.co/post/self-care-audre-lorde-and-black-radical-activism). Last accessed 9/6/2021

[61] See also: Leticia Ordaz, “Meet the man behind Sacramento’s Black Lives Matter mural near Capitol” KCRA, June 10, 2020. https://www.kcra.com/article/meet-the-man-behind-sacramentos-black-lives-matter-mural-capitol/32824444#. Last accessed: 9/8/2021.

[62]https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=10158312374154561&set=a.285667839560&__cft__[0]=AZVnnN8TrmK780Y9YUsspBs_U-9sU5YGrfvhoCNulYYdfxkL-VLOaMdp6Y5FLAlgf855v4qMcYvcwSDcyCyESuJj3uF-M6s-laWjVm6DZgFXEMvhZAueNmbtl8qmMV6mWWisfI0vTcn46sZj7CHp4MBjCTqpp7Y0-ADhLySi65VWKA&__tn__=EH-y-R. See also: Ananda Rochita, “How Sacramento’s West End revitalization left thousands without homes and jobs” ABC 10 June 23, 2020  (https://www.abc10.com/article/news/local/sacramento/sacramento-west-end-revitalization/103-98291e2c-371e-4891-aa59-d415768522d0) and the PBS Documentary: Replacing the Past—Sacramento’s Redevelopment History  (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UEUNt6_oYtI&feature=youtu.be&fbclid=IwAR0U5_gSdbKUIDiOQFT5eCs2V2FbOohA033pv6wLeRK5j_IhQZHDfp2HfP8) Last Accessed June 10, 2020.

[63] See Garrett M. Broad, More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change (University of California Press, 2015), page 6.

[64] Since 2019, I have been the inaugural Faculty Director of the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives in the Social Science, Arts and Humanities with our newly established Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office. In that capacity, I have engaged in a deep dive into the language of diversity, equity, and inclusion. One of my concerns as a long-time faculty member whose research, writing and teaching has always engaged these issues is that we don’t treat DEI as performative – but rather see it as an elemental effort that has been done (often without recognition) by marginalized faculty and staff within the university. As I read the FLC’s diversity statement, I could see the evidence of DEI trainings and coaching to help them articulate their work within this framework. It has not been evident in their public facing work prior to 2020 – which has relied more on a welfare-oriented narrative deeply imbedded in the non-profit industrial complex. What Stott and FLC have is a platform to do the work of DEI through food provisioning on a larger scale than can be accomplished by smaller, community-based organizations that have always existed and have likely always been underfunded. I hope they use their power well.

[65] Diaz oversees one of the largest production kitchens in the region – serving more than 6,500 meals a day – and has transformed standard hospital food into sustainable, healthy eating for patients, employees, and the shared community (https://www.farmtofork.com/chefs/santana-diaz/).  See also: https://health.ucdavis.edu/health-news/newsroom/executive-chef-santana-diaz-to-lead-2021-tower-bridge-dinner/2021/06

[66] Stuart Hall, “Introduction: The Spectacle of the ‘Other’,” Chapter Four in his edited volume Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London: SAGE Publications w/ The Open University, 2007/1997), page 277.

Kimberly D. Nettles-Barcelón is an Associate Professor in the Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies program at UC Davis. She has degrees in Broadcast Journalism/Study of Women & Men in Society (B.A., University of Southern California), Sociology (M.A. and Ph.D., UCLA), and a Professional Baking Certificate (Tanté Marie Cooking School, San Francisco). Her research and writing interests are in Black women’s resistance throughout the African Diaspora. She has published an auto-ethnography of her travels to gather the life-history narratives of Guyanese women activists in her Guyana Diaries: Women’s Lives Across Difference (Left Coast Press, 2008). She is also a scholar of critical food studies with a particular focus on race and gendered representations of Black women and food in popular culture. Nettles-Barcelón also serves as a Book Review Editor for Food and Foodwaysand is the founding Faculty Director of the Center for the Advancement of Multicultural Perspectives in the Social Sciences, Arts & Humanities within the office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at UC Davis.